One on One with: Mark Bright

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 19 years since Sheffield Wednesday were playing in the Premier League. The Owls have spent the better part of the last two decades attempting to recapture former glories which at one point saw them as one of the most feared teams in the country. In the 1992-1993 season, Sheffield Wednesday recorded one of their best campaigns finishing 7th in the Premier league, reaching both the FA Cup and League Cup finals and the second round of the UEFA Cup. That side had some iconic figures including captain Nigel Pearson, Chris Waddle and Carlton Palmer. But spearheading their attack were the duo of David Hirst and Mark Bright who became a lethal strike partnership scoring 36 goals between them.

Bright himself hit 20 of those in all competitions which should have been enough to earn him an England call up. But in a golden era of English strikers, Bright never got the call up he deserved. Nevertheless his legacy as one of England’s best goal scorers is secure, as is the admiration of the fans who revere him even to this day.

We sat down with Mark recently on the eve of his book launch “My Story: From Foster Care to Footballer”  to talk about the highs and lows he had as a player, what it was like playing with Ian Wright and how his time spent in foster care made him the man he is today. Enjoy!

Back Of The Net: You started in non-league with Leek Town before being picked up by Port Vale. It’s a familiar path that numerous players have followed yet the value of the lower league structure is often understated. How important do you think non-league is to the success of the Football League?

Mark Bright: I still believe that players making the transition from non-league to football league will continue in the future. There are many players who drop down after being released from the football league who find their feet and bounce back. It’s also an important training ground for many young players who go on loan to gain experience from Premier League, Championship, League One and Two.

BOTN: It must have been strange going back to Port Vale after being released by them three years previously when you were only 16-year-old. Did that original rejection come into your consideration about re-signing for them or was the draw of playing in the football league too strong?

MB: I dropped down and played my way back up. I didn’t hesitate once I was asked as I still believed in myself and wanted another chance to play league football. Quite a few team mates at Leek Town said to me don’t go back, but I wanted a chance to show everyone what I could do.

Mark Bright during his early days as a Port Vale player (Image from PVFC)

Mark Bright during his early days as a Port Vale player (Image from PVFC)

BOTN: You spent three seasons at Vale Park, establishing yourself in the final season scoring 10 goals in 31 games as Port Vale struggled to stay in the then Third Division. Now 22 years old, you rejected a contract extension and as a result were sold to Leicester. With that move, did you feel that you were now fully on your way to becoming a full-time professional player? 

MB: I was full time at Port Vale. I signed a one-year deal as a part-time player, then I turned pro the next season. All I was interested in was progressing. Leicester City were in League One (now the Premier League) so it was a no brainer for me.

BOTN: How significant was that move in terms of your career?

MB: The move was a game changer for me in terms of joining a club in the top flight; having the chance to be seen on Match of The Day scoring and establishing myself as a player at the highest level.

Bright and Lineker play for Leicester against Luton Town (image from Tumblr)

Bright and Gary Lineker play for Leicester against Luton Town (image from Tumblr)

BOTN: In your first season at Leicester, you played as a backup for Gary Lineker and Alan Smith and struggled to find the net in 16 appearances. But in your second season you had more of an opportunity to shine after Lineker was sold in the summer to Everton. For a player in your position at that time, was it good to see Gary depart as it gave you more of an opportunity or were you thinking more about how the team would fare without him?

MB: I helped Gary to pack and join Everton! Of course I was sorry to see Gary depart but the manager Gordon Milne said this was the chance I’d been waiting for; he gave me my chance. We actually played Everton on the opening day of the season and we won 3-1. I scored two goals and Gary failed to score although as he reminds me, he did go on to win the Golden boot that year while I managed to only score another four goals the rest of the season!

BOTN: It was at Palace that you arguably had your most successful spell as a player, forging a great partnership with Ian Wright. Steve Coppell, the manager at the time saw something in pairing your power and pace with Wrights enthusiasm and dynamic play. Why do you think that partnership worked so well? How long did it take for you and Ian to “click”?

MB: Pace????? I’m not sure about pace. Ian was fresh from non-league so I understood where he was from my own journey. Steve said he needs your help and we worked at it with the coaches who worked hard with us. Ian Evans was the coach  who used to work on movement with us, we talked and worked it out and got better each season. They were great times as we were maturing as individuals and as a partnership. It took time but we nailed it in the end.

Bright, Steve Coppell and Ian Wright (Image from CPFC)

Bright, Steve Coppell and Ian Wright (Image from CPFC)

BOTN: In September 1992, you made the switch to Sheffield Wednesday and continued your rich vein of form, finishing as the club’s top goal scorer three seasons running. That period was when the game in England began to drastically change with the introduction of the Premier League and the riches that came with subscription TV. As a player at that time, did you understand how dramatically things were changing or was it simply business as normal?

MB: At the time I didn’t realize how much impact Sky Sports would have on the game. It was incredible, it transformed football and the way it was covered. They had wall to wall programmes on their channels including The Boot Room which was one of my favourites. I know Andy Gray and Richard Keys messed up but they were fantastic for Sky. Great coverage, great presentation. Players soon realized everyone was under scrutiny plus the money element started to filter through to the players.

BOTN: The move to Sion was clearly a surprise to you when it happened. I understand things weren’t going well at Sheffield Wednesday so when the switch to Switzerland became a realistic option, it seemed too good to turn down. The move was bittersweet in the end, and you left after failing to get paid what was owed to you. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Do you think the situation in Sheffield clouded your judgement around that move or was there simply no way of telling what was going to happen? Would you change anything if you had the chance?

MB: I loved FC Sion. I was really disappointed when it was cut short but everything happens for a reason. I worked with some good people in Switzerland. David Pleat left me out of the team; I still thought I was good enough but he had other plans. Looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. I was having French lessons three times a week, working in beautiful conditions, I used to drive over the mountains to Milan and watch Paul Ince play for Inter;  his wife Clare used to meet and drive me there. I was experiencing a different culture, I loved it. In the end I had to go to UEFA who got some of the money I was owed from the Club.

The Owls - Bright during his time at Sheffield Wednesday (Image from Tumblr)

The Owls – Bright during his time at Sheffield Wednesday (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: You finished your career at Charlton under Alan Curbishley, helping them to gain promotion through the playoffs. After what happened at Sion, how pleasing was it to play at a well-run club like Charlton and a manager like Curbishley? 

MB: I know it’s one of those things fans don’t take kindly to (playing for rivals) but I had to get back to the UK and Curbs was very good to me. I had two really enjoyable years there. The team was young but he needed some experience so Mark Bowen and myself joined. It was a fantastic journey for the club to get back to top flight football. Reaching the play-off final at Wembley was a match in a million, 4-4 after extra time, 7-6 to Charlton on penalties.

BOTN: Are you surprised that he hasn’t managed to get back into management after leaving West Ham in 2008?

MB: I find it incredible Curbs hasn’t worked since leaving West Ham. It’s a shame that all his knowledge is lost to the game.

Curbishley (far left) and Bright (Centre) celebrate Charlton's Division One playoff win (Image from Tumblr)

Curbishley (far left) and Bright (Centre) celebrate Charlton’s Division One playoff win (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Your father was from The Gambia and you were born in Stoke on Trent, England meaning that you could have played international football for both countries. Despite scoring 213 goals you were overlooked by both England managers during that time, Graham Taylor and Terry Venables. How frustrating was that? Did you consider playing for Gambia or was that not an option?

MB: No. I did trained with the Gambian national team in 1996 when I was on holiday, something my uncle arranged it for me. I did give it some thought but ultimately decided not to. I was told by Trevor Francis that he believed I would be in the England squad when it was announced after the weekend, but Gordon Watson jumped on my back after I’d scored and something popped in my knee. I had to have a small operation on it so it wasn’t meant to be. It was a golden era for strikers back then:- Lineker, Beardsley, Shearer, Wrighty, Teddy Sheringham, Andy Cole, Ferdinand, Kerry Dixon, Mark Hateley etc.

BOTN: It’s fair to say you had a tough childhood spending a majority of it in foster care whilst also enduring racism on a regular basis. In your book “My Story”, you talked openly about your life and how those experiences early on drove you to succeed. How much do you feel your childhood has defined you as a man and the way that you now live your life? Did it alter your approach to being a professional footballer?

MB: Good question. Good foster parents shaped me. My foster parent, Grandad Davies installed good values in me and my brother and taught us to respect people and money. The actor Neil Morrisey was in the same foster home as me and he believes it drove us on to be successful. I would say it played a part for sure. Desire to succeed in football has to come from within as it’s a tough industry. My Grandad worked in the coal mines in Staffordshire, he was all about hard work and it filtered through to me. I feel I was the best I could have been as a player and a person.

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My Story is out now.

BOTN: As Crystal Palace’s director of the Under 23 development squad, you must have been happy to see the progress that Aaron Wan-Bissaka made at the club before earning himself a £45 million move to Manchester United this summer. Does his development through the youth ranks at Palace and eventually into the first team vindicate the work that you and the rest of the youth development team are doing? 

MB: Aaron’s success wasn’t anything to do with me. Richard Shaw, Dave Reddington and Roy Hodgson who believed in him should take the credit for his development. He showed others below him in our academy there’s a pathway to the first team if you work hard, listen and dedicate yourself. The opportunities maybe limited so when your chance arrives, you’d better be ready.

BOTN: Finally, some fan questions. 213 goals in total over your career. Do you have a favourite one?

MB: I scored a great goal at Barnsley, a left foot 30 yard strike into the top corner, and a good one at Leicester City against Everton. I turned Kevin Ratcliffe and curled it with the outside my right foot over Neville Southall. A beauty; unfortunately there was a dispute which lead to no Match of the Day coverage so only those in the stadium remember it! I also scored a decent one for Palace when we beat Millwall 4-3 at Selhurst, again into the top corner.

BOTN: What was the best team you played in? Sheffield Wednesday 1992/1993 season?

MB: Two teams; the Palace team that finished 3rd in 1991, and the Sheffield Wednesday team of 1993. Two great teams.

Bright and Waddle celebrate after Sheffield Wednesday's FA cup semi final win (Image from Tumblr)

Bright and Waddle celebrate after Sheffield Wednesday’s FA cup semi final win (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Since retiring in 1999, you have run quite a few marathons for charity. Do you actually enjoy doing them or are you driven purely by a sense of wanting to help the charity?

MB: I ran them to stay fit and raise money for good causes. My best time was 4hrs 3min, to think Eliud Kipchoge could have ran two marathons in that time!

BOTN: Thank you for your time Mark and good luck with your book!

My Story: From Foster Care to Footballer by Mark Bright is published by Constable on 7 November in hardback, £20.

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One on One with: Terry Phelan

There is a lot of talk about Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold being the definition of the modern day fullback. The media seems intent in pointing out that Arnold and his counterpart on the left hand side of Liverpool’s defence, Andy Robertson are revolutionizing football by becoming modern day wingbacks. It seems to them that this role is new, that the Liverpool duo are doing something remarkable, something never seen before but in truth it’s been done for years.

Indeed the Premier League has witness some fantastic examples of attacking fullbacks. Players like Tony Dorigo, Warren Barton, Stuart Pearce, Lee Dixon, Graeme Le Saux , Ashley Cole and our latest One On One guest Terry Phelan were all attacking full backs who could run all day, provide that extra dimension to the attack but also defend. When we chatted recently about the overuse of the modern day terminology, Phelan laughed and said “i was doing that 30 years ago”. And he was.

Those who caught Phelan in action either for one of his many clubs (Leeds, Wimbledon, Man City, Everton, Chelsea etc) or for his country (Republic of Ireland) remember him most for those lung busting runs up the touchline to deliver a cross or racing back to thwart an opposition attack. He was the modern day full back that Arnold and Robertson are replicating today. Currently Phelan is taking everything that he learned as a player and using it to enhance and move the game forward in his new home in India. He has a big job on his hands currently but as he revealed to us in a fantastic interview his thoughts are always back in Ireland and would one day like to work there developing their next generation. We also talked about life in the Crazy gang, what it was like playing for Ruud Gullit and that win for Ireland over Italy at the 1994 World Cup. Enjoy!

Exclusive: One on One Interview with Terry Phelan.

You can follow Terry on Instagram.

Interview contributions by Rob Latham. Follow him on Twitter.

The Greedy 12 and the Super League

It was supposed to be a quiet Sunday until all hell broke loose. Embarrassing and greedy quickly started to trend on Twitter alongside the word “Super League” which told you everything you needed to know. The decision by 12 European clubs to announce a breakaway SuperLeague has been widely condemned by footballs governing bodies, its former and current players and most importantly the fans, who all see this move as financially motivated and without any consideration for them.

After months of secret, behind closed doors talks twelve clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have signed on to be founder members of this new JP Morgan backed European Super League (ESL) which was announced late Sunday afternoon, one day before UEFA was due to announce a potentially expanded Champions League.

The “Big 6” in England have signed on to a European Super League much to the dismay of the FA, the Premier League and the British government.

FIFA have been quick to condemn the move whilst UEFA has threatened tough sanctions on the clubs involved and their players including banning them from all other league and cup competitions and even stopping players from potentially representing their national teams. Legal action could also be taken against each of the 12 clubs with UEFA seeking significant damages rumoured to be around £50-60billion. UEFA have also been supported by the three national federations and leagues that the 12 currently play in, stating that any move of such would result in their eviction from their domestic leagues and cup competitions. But it’s the reaction of the former players and the fans that tells the story. Both have been outraged by the news and have rejected the idea of a Super League being a good thing or indeed even for them. Former Manchester United player Gary Neville called the move absolutely disgusting and a decision based solely on greed whilst former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher called it an “embarrassing decision for Liverpool and for those who have come before”. Hard to disagree.

In a statement released by the new ESL, the founding clubs had agreed to establish a “new midweek competition” with teams continuing to “compete in their respective national leagues”. Three further teams would join shortly to make 15 founding teams that would be secured in their places in the league (couldn’t be removed or relegated) and a further five would join based on performances elsewhere. The hope was that the new league could start as early as next year but the ESL has a lot to do before that becomes reality.

The statement went on to say that the global pandemic had “accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model” and that conversations with UEFA had failed to answer concerns about the need to provide higher-quality matches and additional financial resources for the overall football pyramid.” The ESL will apparently help to put the game on a more sustainable footing in the long term.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has been named as the president of the European Super League and is one of its principle instigators

ESL vice chairman and Manchester United owner Joel Glazer was quoted in saying “By bringing together the world’s greatest clubs and players to play each other throughout the season, the Super League will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition and facilities, and increased financial support for the wider football pyramid.”

There is a lot to unpack there but underneath it all is the general sense that the owners of these 12 clubs are being motivated by one thing and one thing only – greed. The richest clubs in football simply want more money. Talk of fixing the European game, improving the quality for fans or providing a more financial support to the football pyramid is just smoke and mirrors for what this is really about. These 12 clubs feel entitled to more and because UEFA won’t buckle to their demands, they are trying to force their hand.

Whether all 12 believe this league will happen is one thing but what’s more important is that they have massively overestimated their own hand. Either foolishly or naively, the clubs believed that the fans would be excited about this league and more so that their own domestic leagues ( English Premier League, Serie A and La Liga) would be comfortable with this. Neither of which is true. What has happened is instead the greedy 12 have landed in a PR nightmare with no one for support and a general feeling from supporters that they don’t care about anything other than money. Now facing some difficult conversation, not only with FIFA and UEFA but as well with their national leagues, the European Club Association and the Players Football Association, it’s fair to say that the announcement didn’t quite go as planned.

Former players Rio Ferdinand, Francis Benali and Robbie Savage react to the news about the proposed European Super League.

The League may never happen due to a variety of reasons and as suggested earlier, it might never have needed to happen. It could all be a ruse to get UEFA to back down and agree to the changes these 12 clubs wanted as part of a new look Champions League – more power, preferential treatment such as annual participation regardless of performance and above all else more money. But now having overextended themselves and misread how much power they actually have at the wider footballing table, it might be a harder battle to win.

Regardless of how those discussions go or how things pan out over the next few weeks and months, the fans ultimately will have their say or the ability to voice their opinion at the least by turning their backs on the clubs in more than one way. For the instigators of this new league, it’s worth noting that it was supporters who helped to build these clubs up to where they are today and that they quite easily tear them apart as well – Super League or no Super League.

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Hungary – The Greatest Team Not to have the Won the World Cup

There are few teams in the history of football that deserve more than they got but the 1954 Hungary squad is one exception. Quite simply put, Hungary should have been the World Champions that year which could have fundamentally shifted the forward trajectory of Hungarian football for years to come. Instead Hungarian football slipped slowly into the abyss with only a few glimmers of light shining through over the past 67 years. A win for Hungary in that final would have inspired a generation and those after them to talk more about how good a team that was and how the Magical Maygars transformed football in the 1950’s.

It all began in 1949 with the appointment of a revolutionary coach called Gusztav Sebes. As a country under communist rule, Hungary’s Deputy Sports Minister Gusztáv Sebes was tasked with creating their national team in an endeavour to further sporting excellence. Inspired by the Austrian Wunderteam and the Italian team that won two World Cups in the 1930s, Sebes set about transforming Hungary into one of the most dominant and feared national teams ever to grace the world of football. Adapting a 4-2-4 formation perfected by MTK head coach Marton Bukovi which pioneered the crucial deep lying centre-forward position, Sebes would create a side capable of playing fast flowing football that embodied pace, movement and unrelenting brilliance. He ensured that each member of the team was able to understand the individual style and strengths of each of his teammates and that every member of the squad was comfortable playing in multiple if not every position. Total Football was born.

Sebes vision – Hungary formation 1953

What helped Sebes to be successful with this approach was that his team was primarily made up of players from the state sponsored Army team Honved so they were already familiar with one another. Added into this, that Honved team not only had some of the fittest players at the time (army run after all) but also some of the most gifted including Gyula Grosics, Sándor Kocsis, Zoltán Czibor, József Bozsik and of course Ferenc Puskás. Adding in Gyula Lóránt at centre back and Nándor Hidegkuti in that newly created deep lying centre forward role, Sebes built one the the very first team of superstars. Under his tutelage, Hungary recorded 42 victories, 7 draws, and just one defeat, scoring 215 goals along the way in the six year period between 1950 and 1956.

Among those victories, Hungary became the Olympic champions in 1952, winning all five games and scoring 20 goals in total. That was truly when the world woke up to the Magical Magyars. It left many wondering how Sebes formation worked so well and more importantly how Péter Palotás had been used as a withdrawn centre forward. Sebes tactic was essentially to use the traditional striker as a more deep lying playmaker, as well as dropping the two wingers back into midfield to create a team capable of performing a quick turnover. The tactic also helped to draw opposition defenders out of position which in turn opened gaps for others to run into.

The gold medal in Helsinki earned Hungary a glamour friendly against England the following year at Wembley. Sebes, always meticulous in his planning arranged for a friendly with Sweden in advance of that game as they played in a similar style to England. The belief in the England camp however was that they were far more tactical and technically superior than Hungary and were confident that their record of having never lost on home soil to a team from outside the British Isles would stay intact. They were wrong. Sebes produced a surprise in that game by switching out Palotás for Nándor Hidegkuti and its proved to be a masterstroke as Hidegkuti scored a hat-trick as Hungary humiliated England beating them 6-3 on the day. Having failed to learn their lesson, England sought revenge the following year only to be on the end of a 7-1 defeat this time in Budapest.

England captain Billy Wright and Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas exchange flags before their 1953 clash

Next up for Hungary was the 1954 World Cup which they went into as clear favourites having won an impressive 27 straight consecutive games. Hungary issued a statement of intent early on in that World Cup thumping South Korea 9-0 in their opening match before dispatching West Germany 8-3 in their next group match. The trio of Kocsis, Puskas and Hidegkuti were unplayable, scoring 12 of the 17 goals between them. In the quarter finals, Hungary faced the 1950 losing finalists Brazil in what is now widely referred to as the “Battle of Berne”. Under driving rain and with a point to prove, Brazil sought to agitate and kick their opponents which resulted in tempers on both sides rising to boiling point. Hungary eventually won the game 4-2 but not before having József Bozsik sent off along with Brazil’s Nilton Santos for fighting.

The semi final against defending champions Uruguay, who had never lost a World Cup match in their history, was a calmer affair but was not without drama. Missing Puskas, Hungary worked tirelessly to edge out a 2-0 lead which pushed Uruguay to step up a gear. They replied by pulling one back early in the second half before snatching an equalizer 4 minutes from time to send the game into extra time. Despite Uruguay being as technical gifted as their counterparts, they could never match Hungary’s fitness and it was the Maygars who sealed the victory with two goals from Kocsis that set up a final against West Germany.

In the “Miracle of Bern”, better known as the 1954 World Cup Final, Hungary were widely considered favourites having already beaten West Germany convincingly in the group stages and on a 31 game winning streak. However with Puskas still suffering from an ankle injury but wanting to play, Sebes knew he would have to make a tough decision with his team selection. He chose to play Puskas and the “Galloping General” repaid that faith scoring after only 6 minutes. Czibor made it 2-0 shortly after before West Germany pulled it back even with two goals just before half time. In the second half, Hungary were the more aggressive but couldn’t find a way past the german goalkeeper. Six minutes from the end, Hungary were shattered when Helmut Rahn scored a third goal. However Hungary rallied and two minutes before the end, Puskas put the ball into the back of the net, but it was bizarrely ruled off side and West Germany won the game. The controversy with this game however was in the refereeing by Englishman William Ling who gave several key decisions throughout the match in West Germany’s favour. There were also rumours that the German’s had been given performance enhancing drugs in the lead up to the match which allowed them to keep up with the ultra fit Hungarians. Regardless, Hungary lost that game and it is now considered as one of the greatest upsets in football history.

Hungary’s defeat in the 1954 World Cup final was especially hard to take due to the multiple refereeing decisions that went against them that day with some suggesting the game was rigged.

After that defeat, Hungary continued to dominate international football playing 19 games, winning 16 and drawing 3 up until February 1956 when bizarrely Sebes was sacked and replaced by Marton Bukovi which also coincided with the Hungarian revolution of the same year. That was the catalyst that broke up the Magical Maygars. A majority of the players playing for Honved away to Atletico Bilbao in the 1956 European Cup when the revolution broke out back home in Budapest. Unable to go home, a majority of the players sought out new clubs with Puskas joining Real Madrid and Kocsis and Czibor moving to Barcelona.

The significance of this team on football history cannot be understated. The tactics created by Bukovi and adapted by Sebes opened the game up to a new way of thinking, that tactics could be adaptable and could influence games. The ideology attached to those tactics created the Total Football philosophy which would be embraced by Holland in the 1970’s and probably plays into the ideologies being created by our modern day coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. And the positions themselves, with the freedom to move from your deigned role or remove the shackles spawned various iterations that are widely accepted today – the attacking playmaker, the false nine, the sweeper keeper. For that contribution to football, Hungary deserves more than they got. Olympic gold is nice but for a team that dominated and revolutionized international football it’s simply not enough. The 1954 World Cup should have had Hungary’s name carved onto it but instead this great team will be forever noted in the history books as World Cup runners up.

Article by Martin Cowgill.

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One On One with: Harry Redknapp

As far as English managers go, there are few quite like Harry Redknapp. Highly respected, likeable and in possession of a dry wit and a thousand stories to complement it, Redknapp sets himself apart in the game. The former manager, known for his spells at Bournemouth, West Ham, Portsmouth and Tottenham to name a few, may be more focused on building his own personal brand away from the pitch rather than building a team on it but that doesn’t mean that football is done with Harry yet.

We caught up with him recently to talk about his managerial career, trusting in youth at West Ham, converting Gareth Bale to a winger and that Portsmouth FA Cup win.

Back Of The Net: You played alongside Bobby Moore at West Ham and against the likes of Billy Bremner, Dave Mackay and the great Pele during your playing days. What did sharing a pitch with guys like that teach you about being a footballer? Did you carry those lessons on into your career as a manager?

Harry Redknapp: These players are among some of the best players that have been, but all very different in their style. It is always an honour to play with or against the best players and to improve your game you learn so much from them.

BOTN: Your first taste of management came at Bournemouth when you replaced Don Megson in October 1983. You spent ten years at The Cherries mostly in the lower leagues. It appears to be a great place for a manager to learn the trade, as evident again with Eddie Howe, their current manager. Is that club set up for success by the way its structure versus how other clubs operate? How do you rank the job that Howe has done there?

HR: It could benefit all young mangers to go through the system at lower level but many do not and are still successful. Eddie has done a very good job at Bournemouth and is an example of a good young English manager.

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Harry with Bournemouth’s current boss Eddie Howe (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: During your time in charge at West Ham, you brought through and helped establish the likes of Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand as footballers. A lot of other managers might not have given youth players such prominent roles favouring imports instead in order to secure their own jobs long term. Was that decision based simply on the belief that these players were talented enough or driven by other factors such as financial restrictions?

HR: I am proud of the young players that i have helped develop who have gone on to either play for England or been a regular at a club. My thoughts have always been the same if you are good enough the age does not matter.

BOTN: You signed your son Jamie in the January 2005 transfer window presumably because you knew exactly what he would bring to the team. Does that play a big part in the decision-making process when choosing players? Is that also why you signed the same players like Defoe, Crouch and Kranjcar on several occasions?

HR: Jamie would have been an excellent signing with his experience but his injuries got the best of him and he had to retire at the end of the season. The players you mentioned all have quality in different ways and I have always looked at them to be included in clubs i am involved in where possible for that reason.

Midfielder Niko Kranjcar (right) has played for Redknapp at three different clubs (Image from Tumblr)

Midfielder Niko Kranjcar (right) has played for Redknapp at three different clubs (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: The return to Portsmouth, under new ownership seemed like a logic step in your managerial career. But rumours suggest that you were all set to join Newcastle following Sam Allardyce’s sacking. How close were you to joining the Toon Army?

HR: I meet with them and was flattered by their offer, but in the end i decided to stay with Portsmouth.

BOTN: So as you say you remained at Portsmouth and won the FA Cup with them in 2008 with Kanu scoring the winning goal in the final against Cardiff. That win put you in the record books as the last Englishman to win the coveted trophy. How special was that moment for you? At what point in the tournament did you start to believe that you might be able to go all the way?

HR: It was a very special moment and Kanu was a special type of player. Once we won at Old Trafford and then Chelsea got knocked out I thought the cup was a possibility, but we still had to work hard to win the cup.

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One of Harry’s finest moments was lifting the 2008 FA Cup with Portsmouth (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Arguably your most consistent and successful spell as a manager came at Spurs where you regularly took them into the Champions League season after season. Was that your most enjoyable job as a manager? 

HR: Yes, Spurs were near the bottom when I took over but we managed to turn it around and have a good season after that. I enjoyed my time at Spurs and think I am well respected by the supporters of the club.

BOTN: You played a major role in the career of Gareth Bale when you managed him at Spurs. You mentioned in your book that you saw more in Bale than just a left back and eventually switched him to left wing which allowed him to unleash his explosive pace and transform him into one of the world’s best. How pleasing was it to see Gareth flourish at Spurs then in Spain? 

HR: Gareth has a special ability and can play in several position. He has helped to turn around the strength of the Welsh national team as well and I always thought he would do well in Spain.

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Redknapp played a role in converting Gareth Bale (left) from a fullback into a superstar winger (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: After leaving Spurs, you managed at QPR and Birmingham, held advisory positions at Derby, Central Coast Mariners and Yeovil and various punditry and TV roles including a stint in the Jungle. Have we seen the last of Harry Redknapp as a football manager? Is the one role that could tempt you now to come back?

HR: You never know in football, but I am very busy currently with many endorsements and my theatre tours which is about to start soon.

BOTN: On several occasions, you were touted as a potential England manager, but it never materialized. You did however manage Jordan for a while during their World cup qualifying campaign. Did the experience with Jordan change your perception of managing an international team? Did it heighten the disappointment of not getting to manage England?

HR: I had always wanted to consider an international team management if it was offered and to manage England would have been a great honour. The Jordan job was just to help out for a couple of matches, but it was enjoyable all the same.

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Redknapp did get a taste of international management with Jordan albeit for a short time only (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: As a former manager of Spurs, what do you think they need to do to eventually win the Premier League? Are you impressed with what Pochettino has done to date?

HR: He has done a great job and he knows exactly what he needs to do to win the league. Moving into the new stadium I am sure will help as well.

BOTN: Your nephew Frank Lampard is now the manager at Derby County after having a very successful playing career. Did you give him any advice about the transition from playing to managing? How far can he go in the game as a manager?

HR: Frank is his own man with his own ideas and am sure he will be successful as he will work hard and give the job 100%.

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Harry with nephew Frank Lampard (right) and son Jamie Redknapp (left)  – Image from Tumblr

BOTN: We all witnessed something extraordinary during the Carling Cup Final this year when Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be substituted much to the disbelief of his manager Maurizio Sarri. After the match the club played down what had happened as a misunderstanding and after a fine and a week on the bench, Kepa resumed his position between the sticks. Do you think Chelsea managed that situation well? Do you have sympathy for Sarri and the position he was put in? 

HR: The manager runs the team and players should be respectful of his decisions during the game, but it is difficult to comment as we do not know what was said afterwards and it should be an internal club matter.

BOTN: Finally, who was the hardest player to manage? Paolo Di Canio? Adel Taraabt?

HR: There are good and bad players to manage and i would not comment on individual players.

BOTN: Harry thank you for taking the time and good luck with your theatre tour!

To find out more about Harry’s 34 night theatre tour which started May 1st, check out this link.  Harry’s new book – The World According to Harry is out now. Order it now here.

You can also follow Harry on Twitter

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Napoli flying high under Spalletti with Serie A title their destination

After a few indifferent seasons, Luciano Spalletti has got Napoli flying high this campaign. The Naples team is top of the league after 12 match days as well as top of their Europa League group with two games left. They stand unbeaten in Serie A with 10 wins and two draws. Behind this success is manager Luciano Spalletti who has had an instant impact in his first season. This Napoli side is notably well organized and balanced under the 62 year old. In addition, the atmosphere around the club has changed a lot for the better as he appears to have reinstalled belief in players and the fans that Napoli can be contenders. 

After a two year sabbatical, Spalletti is back and has Napoli playing arguably their best football in recent history. His side shapes up generally in a 4-2-3-1 formation and plays high pressing, aggressive, attacking football. They are as adept in playing possession-based football as they are ruthless in counterattacks, especially with Osimhen leading the line but more on him later. We have seen time and time again that the foundation of success is the defence. Spalletti has not only made sure that his side doesn’t leak goals from the back but has made Napoli the strongest defensive unit in the league. Collectively they have only conceded four goals in the league and the way they defend is as impressive as their defensive stats.

Gli Azzurri play with a very high defensive line with the centre-back pairing lingering around the halfway line. They try to shut down their opponent’s attacks quickly and high up the pitch. Spalletti wants to keep the opponents far away from his goal and his system is working wonders. Napoli has the lowest average in the league for shots on target conceded per game at 2.67 alongside Torino. Kalidou Koulibaly is crucial for Spalletti’s defensive system to work. The Senegalese’s role is to close down opponents aggressively when the ball is played between Napoli’s defence and midfield and also when the ball is played in behind, which happens often against high defensive lines. This role suits Koulibaly perfectly because of his pace and strength and that’s why he is again in the conversation for the best defender in Europe. The other centre-half, Amir Rahmani acts as the last man and plays the sweeper role or libero as they say in Italy. Rahmani has been a calming presence in Napoli’s backline and has formed a solid centre-back partnership alongside Koulibaly. 

Moving up the field, Fabian Ruiz and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa form Napoli’s first-choice double pivot. Spalletti’s Napoli has a great balance between attack and defence and it’s the two central midfielders who are responsible for that. Ruiz and Anguissa coordinate well and remain in close proximity to each other. They are both comfortable performing the actions that come with the central midfielder role- screening the centre backs, dropping deep to link up play, etc.  However, Anguissa tends to focus more on the defensive burden, leaving Ruiz to the creative responsibility which has made their partnership work so effectively. 

Anguissa has been a revelation for Napoli this season since moving from Fulham on loan

The man on loan from Fulham, Anguissa has already become a vital player for Spalletti. He is the lungs of the team and works non-stop to win the ball back by closing down players or cutting passing lanes. He is among the best in the league for interceptions. The Cameroonian is a decent passer and also makes progressive runs with the ball as he is a great dribbler. With most of the defensive work done by Anguissa, Ruiz has been shining this season with his passing. The Spaniard is key for Napoli’s possession play and leads the league for most passes. He links up Napoli’s defence and attack very well and can play defence splitting passing through the lines or over the top. Both Ruiz and Anguissa linger just outside the opposition’s box during sustained attacks and are capable of belters. Ruiz has already curled in three goals from the range whilst Anguissa has come close but still to score.

Napoli builds up in a 2-4-4 shape. They either build up in wide areas with the full-backs heavily involved or through the centre with one of the CM dropping deep to link up with the central defenders. This shape allows Napoli to switch the play comfortably and also tire their opponents down by keeping possession. When building attacks from wide areas, the inverted wingers work in coordination with the full-backs. If the winger cuts inside, the full-backs provide the width and if the winger stays wide, the full-backs get in half-spaces to play crosses in the box, mostly for Osimhen. However, the skipper, Insigne plays with most positional freedom, often popping up in dangerous areas. When playing through vertical lines, the attacking midfielder looks for receiving the ball on the turn and then quickly release the cutting-in wingers or the striker. 

Osimhen has become fundamental to Napoli’s attacks. The club record €70 million striker is finally proving that he is worth his transfer fees after being unlucky with a shoulder injury and Covid last season. The Nigerian can hold up the play, run in behind, and also link up with teammates in tight areas. The no.9 already has 9 goals this season however, his finishing can be a bit frantic at times. Osimhen is a complete menace for opposition defenders and can create problems even when he is not scoring, just like the two penalties he forced against Bologna. The connection between Insigne and Osimhen has been brilliant for Napoli this season. They both are also the main counter-attacking threat for the team and look for each other in those situations. During counterattacks, Osimhen may also drag wide to get on the ball, which creates space in central areas for the wingers to attack.  

Osimhen has found form at Napoli and become a vital part of their team

Napoli’s attack is well stocked too. Mertens and Lozano had a slow start to the season because of injuries but are great options to come fill in at the attacking positions with the Mexican Lozano looking to become a regular starter. Elmas can come in as the attacking midfielder as well or at wide left giving Spalletti options from the bench. Up front, Andrea Petagna is not the same as Osimhen but he is being used to manage the Nigerian’s workload and offers something different when games are tight.

The only real issue that Spalletti has is that the depth in defence is not as good for the Partenopei as other areas. Kostas Manolas and Juan Jesus are the backup centre back options but Napoli can look vulnerable without Koulibaly as they did in the draw against Verona when the Senegalese was serving his red card suspension. Jesus can also fill in at left-back too and Malciut can come in at right-back but there is a significant drop in quality when Napoli misses someone from their preferred back four, also considering the balance in the centre back pairing of Koulibaly and Rahmani. Another worry for Napoli would be the African Cup of Nations, which will make them miss three of their most important players in Koilabily, Anguissa, and Osimhen for up to 5 game weeks after boxing day. 

There is a chance for this Napoli team to do something really special. With Juve well off the pace this season, Napoli’s main competition for the Scudetto will come from Milan. More from the red side as the Rossoneri are also unbeaten in the league and joint top, they are also in a later stage of development as a team as it’s Pioli’s third season in charge opposed to Napoli’s first under Spalletti. If Napoli can somewhat maintain the standards they have set themselves in the league and weather the upcoming storms, Gli Azuri can lay their hands on the Scudetto 32 years after they last won it with Maradona. What a tribute would that be to the man they renamed their stadium after last December.

Piece by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Five Premier League players Newcastle need to sign for survival

With every visible sigh from the new owners during Newcastle’s 3-2 defeat by Tottenham, it was clear how big a challenge they had just taken on. Removing Steve Bruce was one thing, hiring a new boss another but the depths of changes needed at Newcastle has surely amazed Amanda Staveley, her husband and their Saudi investors. It’s important to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day in the same way that the turnaround of fortunes at Newcastle on the pitch won’t happen overnight. Aspirations of Champions League nights and title celebrations are understandable, but first Newcastle must focus on just getting off its knees.

14 years of abuse and neglect has left its scars, some of which will take a long time to heal. Off the pitch, the facilities need some love and a lot of investment to make them appeal enough to attract bigger names. And on the pitch, the squad itself needs an overhaul to breathe life and hope back into the once optimistic Geordie faithful. Next summer is when that will likely happen but before that can happen, tactical investments need to be made to ensure survival and another season of Premier League football next year.

The January transfer window is still more than a few weeks away, yet it may prove to be the most crucial 30 odd days in Newcastle’s history. Failure to secure the players needed to improve the squad could be the difference between staying up or dropping down. But it will be far from an easy task. The January window is notoriously hard to operate in with few players willing to move mid-season unless they have been deemed unwanted by their existing clubs. Ironically there also appears to be a January premium attached to players who can already smell the desperation of a club in dire straits with limitless funds behind them. This all said, Newcastle must be bold and pursue players that will help them transform their fortunes over the second half of the season, hitting the ground running from day one. That in a sense rule out a lot of foreign imports who could take time to adjust to life in the northeast of England especially during mid-winter. Therefore, buying players already in the Premier League or at least with Premier League experience makes more sense than gambling on a player from another country adapting quickly. Newcastle needs five new players at a minimum, all of whom would be first team players and regulars in the side. Investing in youth players for their academy or glamour players from abroad can wait, for now they need instant success.

The first gap to fill would be at centre half which has been a problem area for quite some time. Despite several options including Schar, Lascelles, Fernandez and Clark, Newcastle’s centre backs look often dazed and confused and as a result leak more goals than is needed. Burnley’s James Tarkowski should be the first player in the door to help shepherd the defence towards a stronger position. The 28-year-old is in the last year of his contract and has already admitted to wanting to try something new so making a move in January may be possible. The commanding centre half is exactly what is needed likely alongside Lascalles (at least in the short term) or as part of a back three. Strong in the air, solid defensively and with an eye for goal, Tarkowski makes perfect sense. If competition for Tarkowski’s signature prevents that from happening, Newcastle would be wise to switch its focus to Brighton and Lewis Dunk who has been exceptional for them over the past few seasons.

Staying with the defence, a new right back is needed with Krafth and Manquillo far from good enough. Both have their own qualities either from a defensive perspective or an attacking one, but neither possess both leaving Newcastle more than often caught short. Norwich’s Max Aarons would be a solid investment for the club not only due to his age (still only 21) but his experience to date (132 games over 4 seasons) and his ability to not only defend well and push opposition players into less threatening positions but also his attacking flair and runs which would add another dimension to Newcastles game. With Jamaal Lewis operating on the other side plus Lascalles and Tarkowski in the middle, Newcastle could finally stop their defensive rot. Norwich are set up as a selling club so attaining Aarons is possible but if they need to look for an alternative, Everton’s Seamus Coleman could also do a similar job whilst bringing more leadership and experience to the table.

In the middle of the park, Wolves Ruben Neves offers more than exceptional vision and superb positional play. Neves can control the tempo of a match either from a deeper more defensive midfielder role or a more central one. Both suit the Portuguese international who has been playing in the Premier League now for four years and has amassed a wealth of experience in the game despite being only 24. Having captained Porto in the Champions League at a very young age, Neves could bring leadership experience too which has been severely lacking in the heart of Newcastle’s midfield for many years now. As a permanent fixture of the Wolves side, his acquisition could prove to be the most expensive but given all he brings to the table, it would be money well spent. Another option would be Southampton’s James Ward Prowse who appears to grow in stature as the seasons advance. Similar in style and approach to Neves, Ward Prowse would be a strong signing that could also bring some dead ball expertise to the club too.

Out wide, the acquisition of Wilfred Zaha could get Newcastle fans back on their feet again. That duty over the past few seasons has too often fallen at the skillful feet of Allan Saint Maximin who has obliged where possible but now sides have caught on to the need to stick close to the Frenchman and double team him as much as possible. Bringing in someone like Zaha would turn the tables on that approach and offer multiple headaches for opposing defenders to deal with. Zaha is exactly the type of player Newcastle fans want to see with his pace and trickery in line with former Toon entertainers David Ginola, Laurent Robert and of course Faustino Asprilla. Zaha like ASM has the ability to turn games on their head, change a draw into a win with one fleeting run that cuts defences open, or a dribble and shot to win a game. With ASM on one side and Zaha on the other, Newcastle would once again put fear into oppositions across the league.

Upfront Callum Wilson has been exceptional however the burden of being Newcastle’s only real goalscoring threat is too much for the former Bournemouth player. He needs support and that should come in the form of Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The Everton and England striker is the perfect foil for the towering and muscular Wilson who plays a similar role to Shearer or Ferdinand in the past. Calvert-Lewin however offers more in the box as well as being a string connector of the play through smart passes and clever runs. Good on the ground and in the air, Calvert-Lewin would be an instant success in the Northeast and would likely be a fan favourite with the Toon fans before long. 

These five players plus the return to form of Dubravka and the unchaining of Almiron in a more attack minded position should fire Newcastle well clear of the relegation zone and into mid table security. In addition, all five would prove solid long-term investments with all under the age of 28 meaning that they will be part of the team for the future. One thing is for sure, January is going to be very interesting for Newcastle fans.

Article by Martin Cowgill

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Southampton and the Academy Vision that consistently produces world-class talent.

Southampton Football Club have always had a brilliant track record and knack for developing youth products and talent from within their academy. They have a structured model to produce high-level first team players. Their approach allows them to keep these players until they are developed enough to be able to attract interest from bigger clubs and then sell these graduates for large money transfers. This therefore helps Southampton to be financially safe for the future and reinvest into the next generation of stars. You only have to look at some of the examples of world-class and high level players who have come from within their youth development structure: Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alan Shearer and Adam Lallana to name a few. Added into this, Southampton’s academy vision is to ‘’produce a first team year-on-year made up of 50% Academy graduates who are world-class in their technical ability on the field as well as behaviours off the field’’. Why is their academy vision so successful and what do they do to make this vision come true on such a frequent basis?

Southampton has always been a football club that prides themselves on being able produce talented youth who are capable of big things. You may think it is only a more recent trend but, in reality The Saints have always been able to produce high level youth even well before they became a Category 1 academy in 2012. Matt Le Tissier, Dennis Wise and Wayne Bridge were developed at Southampton as were more recent graduates like James Ward-Prowse, Matt Targett and Jack Stephens . Southampton put a lot of faith in their youth, and don’t just train their youngsters how to be footballers but also how to thrive in life, through their education programme. They have a philosophy of ‘’turning Potential into Excellence’’ and it is evident that this is a philosophy that works. Southampton as a club has a family culture and puts every player at the centre of what they do. The success of Southampton’s academy by many is credited towards what they call the academies ‘10 Commandments’, these are behaviours and traits that the club believes any elite player should and needs to possess.

image of Southampton’s academy; 10 commandments as pictured within the academy training ground.

You may have heard quotes such as ‘’Southampton has one of the best academies in the whole of world football’’. It may be hard to belive but there is hard evidence that this is the case. Take for example a recent study by the The International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES), that calculated that the fees received by Southampton for the sales of: Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers summed up to almost 40% of the total income of the Premier League teams for the transfers of home-grown footballers during the three seasons before 2015 at around €90 million. This put them at the top of the standings as the most profitable youth academy. It goes a long way to illustrate how much profit and revenue Southampton has made through the selling of their youth players and outlines the importance of having strong academy ethos and philosophies.

Former Southampton youth graduate Gareth Bale

Southampton FC are a proven and accredited club who are proud of their youth. They develop many world-class and high level football players, through their highly structured and punctual academy system and rules. They have an academy vision that refuses to fail due to both its focus on technical ability as well as their respect, morals and aim to build the players as people not just footballers.

Post by Samuel Cox, Back Of The Net contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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Takeover done. Now what for Newcastle?

4 years. 48 months. 1460 days. 35,040 hours. It’s a long time to wait to get what you want but finally its happened with the consortium led by Amanda Staveley and back by the PIF taking control of Newcastle United Football Club. The deal worth £305m is not without its controversies, much of which is aligned to PIF’s involvement but for the Newcastle fans who have spent the last 13 years being ignored and abused by their clubs former owner Mike Ashley, it matters not. Finally their club is free again and can now hopefully live up to its potential. Staveley and co will undoubtedly be aware of the enormous task that sits in front of them. A lot needs to change and quickly but where to start? Likely the first point of call will be with the manager.

Amanda Staveley and Newcastle’s other new owners have a lot to do now that they have the keys to this iconic club.

There has been a lot of talk about what will happen with the manager situation but there are very few who actually think Steve Bruce should or will remain in charge. His £8m payoff has been widely touted as being the first piece of real business by the new owners and its a move that will please the fans who have been bewildered by how Bruce has remained in charge for this long. To be fair to Bruce, who is 1 game shy of making the 1,000 games as a manager, it’s not totally been his fault with a lack of funds and mounting injuries largely to blame. But he hasn’t helped himself with his inability to use what he has and get the best out of them resulting in only 3 points from Newcastles first seven games of the season. Adding in to this, his close ties to outgoing owner Mike Ashley means he has to go. But who will replace him?

The job itself is an interesting one especially the opportunity to build something almost from scratch and wealthy backers willing to do that. However it’s also a long term project that will need patience and a few transfer windows to rebuild a squad that is threadbare at present. Antonio Conte and Zinedane Zidane are two high profile names linked with the job with the former slightly more interesting given his experience in the league after he won the title in his time at Chelsea. Both are currently out of work and are title winning managers but would this challenge present an opportunity for them to test themselves or would it be seen as too much of a risk to their reputations. After all, money doesn’t necessarily guarantee success at least not in the short term. Perhaps which might be enough to deter them. The other option is to look more short term and find a manager who can stabilize the club, assist in creating a more balance squad and bring belief back to the fans and the players that Newcastle can once again compete.

Conte is one name tipped with the job but can Newcastle’s new owners persuade him to join?

Top of mind is Brendan Rodgers who has done just that at Leicester City. The former Liverpool and Celtic boss is tactically sound and capable of building squad needed to perform. Having come close to winning the league with Liverpool and with Leicester (to a degree), would he view the opportunity at Newcastle as a way to eventually go one step further or will he see it for what it is – a risk. After all, success is defined differently by everyone so his idea of success might not align with the new owners, even if they are saying outwardly to the fans that this will be a long term project. What, if after two seasons in charge, Rodgers has Newcastle comfortably in the top 8 and had a few good runs in the cups. Will that be viewed as a success or will he be dismissed in favour of a bigger name manager. There is however one manager who the new owners will give a longer rope to and that is former Newcastle boss and now Everton manager Rafa Benetiz. The Spaniard is viewed favourably by the consortium having been top of their wish list for manager over a year ago had the takeover gone through then. He would likely be afforded more than just a season and a half especially if his vision aligned with theirs. But would they be able to convince him to leave the project he has only just started at Everton for another bite at the cherry at Newcastle. Time will tell.

Regardless of who is brought in, the rebuilding job needed at a squad level is more than apparent. With the exception of Allan Saint Maximin, Callum Wilson, Joe Willock and club captain Jamal Lascelles, quality across the board is seriously lacking. With no real production line of talent coming through, acquisitions in the short term will be needed to improve Newcastles fortunes. The spending will start in January before a real overhaul in the summer. With 12 of the first team squad over 29 years old, time is not on Newcastle’s side and new faces will need to be added which will not be an easy task. Identifying these targets and working behind the scenes to start the conversations will likely fall to the clubs new Sporting Director which should only be one man – Les Ferdinand. The former Newcastle icon has been Director of Football at QPR for the past 6 years and has done a tremendous job there and is the right man to lead the changes at St James Park. Having played for the club in its heyday he will understand the deep connection the fans have to the club, their expectations and what needs to be done to return Newcastle back to a place where they are competitive. The fans aren’t expecting to see Mbappe or Messi walk through the doors and into the famous black and white jersey but they are looking for players who can make them better and give their all for the club every time they step onto the pitch.

Sir Les Ferdinand should be the only name under consideration for Sporting Director

To help this evolution on the pitch, several things need to happen off it. Firstly investment into the training ground and in to St James Park to modernize them both is much needed. Both have suffered over the past 13 years under Mike Ashley’s ownership who barely put any money into either besides enough to give it a lick of paint. Secondly, rebuilding the youth academy from scratch including renewing ties with key youth clubs in the surrounding area to unearth the next generation of stars. Adding former players like Warren Barton, Lee Clark and Rob Lee to the youth setup would help as well as only players from the past can educate the players of the future about what it’s like to play for this club. Thirdly, establishing a strong scouting system and opening up ties internationally will allow the club to expand further, generate new sources of revenue and find hidden gems from across the world which will keep the club competitive in the future. And finally and likely the hardest of them all, making Newcastle United into a global brand. It’s something that Mile Ashley foolishly ignored whilst other clubs in the league and around Europe reaped the benefits. Outside of England, Newcastle has only a small loyal following and certainly not on the same international scale as Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United. Building a global brand will take time, it will need the right people leading it from a strategy perspective, it will need to tap into the clubs icon players of the past like Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan, David Ginola and Jonas Gutierrez who can passionately sell the club to foreign fans and it will need funding, something that shouldn’t be an issue now. Opening up this iconic club to a wider audience only has upside and will elevate the club into a new stratosphere as they look to compete with the biggest clubs in world football both on and off the pitch.

Article by Martin Cowgill

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Who are the Favourites to Win the Premier League?

After a Pandemic that has crippled several clubs financially, many big-name players made unthinkable moves. The Premier League has seen a shift of fortunes in Europe in recent seasons after several years of poor performances in European competitions. With more amassment of talent, this season offers more excitement than ever before. Romelu Lukaku’s return back to London as the prodigal son has transformed Chelsea into genuine title contenders and he has looked dominant on his first few games back. On the other side, Harry Kane’s decision to stay in the capital appears to affected the player but not the club who was interested in buying him, Manchester City . Liverpool got back their captain and their entire squad looks more confident as a result but, the biggest shock has been the return of the Cristiano Ronaldo back to Manchester United after more than a decade.  With the closure of the transfer window, we can have a breakdown of the favourites for the title and the top four.

Clinical – Chelsea lacked a cutting edge last year but not this season with Romelu Lukaku returning

Chelsea

Last season finish: 4th

New Arrivals: Romelu Lukaku, Saul Niguez, Trevor Chalobah

Notable Exits: Tammy Abraham, Olivier Giroud, Kurt Zouma, Fikayo Tomori

Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel have made significant strides and have now started to taken a transform into a legitimate much to the delight of the board who backed them by investing over  £200 million in signings last year. After a hot pursuit of Erling Haaland fell through due to increased wage demands and agent fees, the board finally decided to sign for bring back their former prodigy, Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian has started the season in great form scoring 4 goals in five games so far. Chelsea possess phenomenal squad depth made up of a mix of young and experienced players. Jorginho has been instrument in the middle clearing build-up plays and stopping momentum with clever foul baiting tactics much like his performance for Italy at the Euros. The game against Liverpool at the beginning of the season showed just how well coached this team is under Tuchel. Despite giving away a penalty and losing a defender, the team managed to secure a draw and still managed to threaten a handful of chances in the second half. Chelsea have also managed to secure the signing of Saul Niguez from Atletico Madrid, a deep lying midfielder to provide cover for Kante who has had his fair share of injuries of late.

Prediction: Presently as constructed, Chelsea are the favourites for the season given their squad depth, tactically soundness and the presence of Lukaku up front. Tuchel’s biggest failure at PSG was his inability to control the ego of the big players but, he has the perfect opportunity of success at Chelsea with a hungry squad and a chance to correct on his mistakes.

In Pep they Trust -Pep has added only Jack Grealish to his squad yet still Man City look menacing.

Manchester City

Last season: 1st

New Arrivals: Jack Grealish

Notable Exits: Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia

The defending champions have improved their squad with the addition of Jack Grealish but, failed to acquire a striker to replace Sergio Aguero who left for greener pastures in Spain. The Harry Kane deal fell through due to extreme demands from Tottenham as did their quiet pursuit of Erling Haaland whilst, Cristiano Ronaldo chose to return to his former home. The Sky Blues have started the season in great fashion with Jesus and Ferran Torres showing they can rise up to the task. Despite losing their first match to Tottenham, Man city went on to thump Norwich and Arsenal 5-0 on consecutive weekends highlighting their overall strength. With several options to choose from and a superior confidence in the squad, Man City should be challenging for honours on all fronts this season. However Guardiola still needs a top striker who can rise up during close games and big games as evidenced from the opening game against Tottenham. Manchester City possess a lot of talent to provide an entertaining season and will likely return for Kane or make a more aggressive approach for Haaland next year as Pep eyes the one piece of silverware that has eluded him so far at Man City – The Champions League trophy.

Prediction: 2nd Place

All Smiles – With Van Dijk back at the heart of the defence, Liverpool look more settled this year and happier after a troublesome campaign last year.

Liverpool

Last season: 3rd

New Arrivals: Ibrahima Konate

Notable Exits: Xherdan Shaqiri, Georginio Wijnaldum

Liverpool had a very quiet transfer window making only on real signing, bringing in centre back Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig most likely to avoid the issues of last season. A central midfielder was also under consideration following the departure of Wijnaldum to PSG but the emergance of Harvey Elliot perhaps gave Klopp food for thought. After a season of misfortune last year losing van Dijk and Gomez to injury and a lack of cohesion in their front three of Salah, Firmino and Mane, Liverpool somehow made it into the top four due to Leicester’s late slip up. This season however is different with Virgil van Dijk back and in great form looking like he was never injured. Firmino still looks off but, Salah and Mane are looking clinical with Jota adding an extra dimension. With cover in the back for van Dijk, Liverpool will bank on their forwards to carry them to a trophy. Their midfield however does looks old and slow and they need an aggressive attacking midfielder to press higher up the field if they are to properly challenge for the title.

Prediction: 4th place edging past Tottenham and well clear of West Ham at 6

The King Returns – Can Ronaldo inspire a new look Manchester United side to glory at home and abroad?

Manchester United

Last season: 2nd

New Arrivals: Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Varane, Jadon Sancho

Notable Exits: Daniel James

What a transformational window United have had this season! First they captured the young talented Jadon Sancho whom they have vetted extensively over the past year. They then added a proven winner in Raphael Varane from Madrid for only 50 million Euros which should ensure that the defensive is much tighter than last year. And then to top it all they got Cristiano Ronaldo. The former United man comes back a more experienced player than the one who left a decade ago. Despite the wear and tear, Ronaldo is still a genuine threat and a clinical finisher whose years in Juventus have created another threat in his game to shot creation. If not for the poor finishing in Turin, Ronaldo would have more assists to his name last season. Ole Gunnar Solskaer knows has a genuine title contender in this squad in Ronaldo and must use him wisely. United’s faith in Ole is beginning to pay off and they now have a squad with enough quality to attract even more top talents. Ole will require time to figure out his best squad including how to play the impression Edison Cavani, who let go of the number 7 shirt to Cristiano, with the returning Portuguese icon. Gary Neville has already said that this United squad may not win the league but will be challengers especially now with Ronaldo on board. They will set their sights on the European trophy with a veteran squad but, a trophy at the end of the season is a must for Ole after splashing cash on proven winners.

Prediction: 3rd Place

As Tottenham are in rebuild phase with a new coach and with no significant arrivals, they do not possess the squad depth of the Top 4 mentioned above to play throughout the season. Leicester and West Ham will provide tough competition as well as probably one other surprise team but this season will all be about the above four teams and that race for the title.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

The Rebirth of Serie A

The end of Juventus’ reign at the top was a vital moment for the Italian Serie A towards becoming entertaining again. With the league finally disassociated from a sense of winner predetermination caused by Juve’s nine consecutive Scudettos, there is a general feeling that its anyones game now and competition has returned. There is no guarantee that the 20/21 season wasn’t just a blip in Juventus’s era of domestic dominance but with rivals clubs growing in stature over the past few years and narrowing the gap on the I Bianconeri, many are touting a new dawn in Italian football and the rebirth of Serie A.

Juventus’s failure went hand-in-hand with the reignition of Inter Milan, which can only increase the interest towards Serie A long term. Antonio Conte, who ironically began Juve’s streak of Scudettos in 2011-12, came as close as one point to win the league with Inter in 19/20 before comfortably running away with it in the latter stages of last season. He may have now departed from his role as head coach of Inter but his legacy is secure having stopped the Juventus dominance of the league.

Another good sign for Serie A was that it was AC Milan who gave their local rivals the most competition for the first spot on the table. One of the biggest derbies in world football, the Derby di Milano which had lost some of it’s magic until last season, was played with high stakes and simmering tensions. The occasions were encapsulated in a heated moment between the self proclaimed king and god of Milan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Inter’s Romelu Lukaku which was later turned into a beautiful mural in Milan. The reemergence of this derby works as a crown jewel for Serie A which has been searching for a way to reinsert itself into the mindset of fans across the globe. By finishing second I Rossoneri, the second most successful club in Champions league history, booked a return to the top echelon of club competition after seven years of absence which in turn will help to boost Serie A’s relevance worldwide.

Last season, there was also a nail biting race for the top four until the dying stages which could have left Juventus without Champions League football for the first time in a decade. So in light of the Old Lady’s fourth place finish there is a fact to be remembered that Serie A is a league with a precious mixture of big and exciting clubs. Apart from the already mentioned three, Napoli, Roma and Lazio are clubs with respected pedigrees and good potential. In Atalanta, the league has someone who can win the heart of neutrals through their attractive football, underdog nature and capability of beating anyone on their day. Arguably, Serie A has a ‘big 7’.

There have been more positive signs in the off-season for Serie A. Apart from Italy winning the Euro 2020 which would bring some more light to the domestic league, the players from the Italian league combined to score 37 goals at the European Championship, at least nine more than players from any other league. Juventus players scored 12 goals, the most by players of any club with star player Cristiano Ronaldo winning the Golden Boot. However, these are more like fun facts than any statements of weighted benefit for the league. It’s the will shown by some Italian clubs to keep their national stars in the league that would be making the Serie A executives excited. Juventus rejected Chelsea’s €100 million bid for Federico Chiesa, declaring him “untouchable”, the same term has been used by Inter for Nicolo Barella amid interest from Premier League clubs.

Federico Chiesa is staying in Serie A after impressing at Euro 2020

A host of other top players have stated their loyalty to the league. Manuel Locatelli, another star for the future, prefers to stay in Italy and play for Juventus next season over a move to Arsenal. Lukaku has declared he wants to stay at Inter despite being on the wanted list of a host of top EPL clubs. With Ronaldo also likely to stay, these are all favourable signals for Serie A, which hosted the biggest football names in the 1990’s. However with the departures of Hakimi and Dunorumma to PSG demonstrate, there are still plenty of obstacles for Serie A to overcome and fierce competition from other leagues for their star players.

Financial woes led to complications between Antonio Conte and Inter and Serie A losing one of the best managers in the world. Conte ambitiously wanted to strengthen the team after disastrously finishing bottom of the Champions League group but that didn’t align with Inter’s need to raise funds. For a league to shine it needs it’s clubs to do well in Europe and it’s been more than 10 years since an Italian club won the UCL trophy. There also might be a couple of worrying signs for Serie A in Juve’s reappointment of Allegri. Arguably one of the key reasons behind Juventus’ previous dominance, the return of their former coach could signal another long spell of dominance for Juventus which would not be good news for the league as a whole. Whether Juventus leadership has changed its stance on Allegri since his last spell is yet to be determined. After all they sacked the manager who brought them numerous league titles and got them to two European finals for failing to win the Champions League.

Serie A, which has an image of being a slow and technical league, has to compete with other big leagues for top tier footballers as well as the eyes of global fans. English Premier League has greater commercial and financial value, more entertaining football and arguably the best managers. Long-term and consistent investment is needed in diverse sectors to compete with them as well as La Liga and Bundesliga who continue to jostle for dominance. So, there remain plenty of hurdles to be tackled but the Italian league is moving in the right trajectory and away from it’s dull self of the past several years.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Nail biting Round of 16 stuns Euros which now goes down to Final 8.

The knockouts of the Euro 2020 have started in full swing with exhilarating games and several significant upsets. After four days of knockout games, the bracket for the quarter finals has taken shape with several notable nations bowing out after tough competitions. Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the games and our predictions for the quarterfinals.

Day 1: A poor showing and a nail-biting thriller

Denmark vs Wales: 4 – 0

Key players: Gareth Bale (Wales); Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

The Danes dismantled an unorganized and unprepared Welsh side with ease in this game. The Euro 2016 semi-finalists who narrowly clinched the runner up spot of group A, went down a goal in the first half and were thoroughly outclassed by an inspired Danish side who have played heroically since losing star player Christian Eriksen in their very first game of the tournament. Welsh frustrations were only highlighted by the stoppage time red card to Harry Wilson, which looked soft to be fair. The Danes go through to the next round thanks to an inspirational performance and a newly confident forward in Kasper Dolberg who bagged a brace in this game.

Italy vs Austria: 2 – 1

Key Players: Lorenzo Insigne (Italy), L. Spinazzola, David Alaba (Austria)

Italy came into the tournament not having lost in 15 games in a row and cleared the group without any loss. Considered a darkhorse, they faced a very organized Austrian side led by Real Madrid new boy David Alaba. Italy was tested throughout the game which was goalless for 90 minutes. They then scored two goals in the first half of extra time, once again involved on the goal was the AS Roma man, Spinazzola. The left back has taken the Euros by a storm with his speed and deep penetrating runs. Austrian side put up a great fight until the end having scoring a last-minute goal and creating chaos for the last 8 mins of extra time but, the Italians held on to progress to the next round. If there were any cause for concern for the Italian side, it would be the poor showing of Domenico Berardi who despite some significant key defensive contributions failed to convert key chances to close the game.

Day 2: Passion and Pride

Netherlands vs Czech Republic: 0 – 2

Key Players: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic), Memphis Depay (Netherlands), Gini Wijnaldum (Netherlands)

The Dutch took an early exit after a poor showing against the surprise outfit of the Czech Republic. After losing their defensive leader Matthijs de Ligt early on (sent off for a deliberate handball), the Dutch lost all composure and fell under the pressure from a passionate and organized Czech performance. Patrik Schick was once again the man in the limelight who created the pressure for De Ligt’s send off and scored a fine goal to cap off a brilliant performance.  Now the only question that remains is how far can these underdogs go at the Euros.

Belgium vs Portugal: 0 – 1

Key Players: Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Belgium go through to the Quarter finals after a decent showing against Portugal. Portugal took a very conservative approach against a star-studded Belgium side, attempting to restrict any gaps. Both sides were very composed throughout the game, with Belgium capitalizing on an early chance with a goal towards the end of the first half. Kevin de Bruyne played his usual game and was constant threat throughout the game often suffering heavy tackles from Portugal’s frustrated defensive line. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was quick to remove Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard after the early goal and held on to win the game as they prepare to face tougher competition on their expected road to the Final.

Day 3: Two classic games of passionate football that will be remember for years to come

Spain – Croatia: 5 – 3 (AET)

Key Players: Alvaro Morata (Spain), Luka Modric (Croatia) 

Spain came into the knockouts with two questionable performances and a final day 5-0 victory over Slovakia. Many questions were raised against Alvaro Morata’s form and Luis Enrique’s tactics at the Euros. Morata did not score in the win over Slovakia but showed signs of improvement from his first two performances. Spain started the game poorly with keeper Unai Simon missing a straightforward back pass from Pedro that ended up in the back of their own net.  But they quickly took control of the game and went up 3-1 shortly after. They looked all set to advance before Luka Modric who took control of the game in the last 15 minutes and Croatia scored twice to levelled the game in stoppage time with notable contributions from Atalanta man, Mario Pasalic. It looked like the momentum was completely on Croatia’s hands in extra time but, the fatigue of the game finally caught up to Croatian side. But the Spaniards were more clinical in extra time and put the game well beyond reach with two well taken goals to advance to the quarter finals. Heartbreak for Croatia but all in all it was an entertaining game for the fans and neutrals.

Take home: Spain showed grit to come back in extra time, they capitalized on the chances and closed down the game. Morata and Ferran Torres look confident but, defensive issues still persist.

France: Switzerland: 3 – 3 (AET) [4-5 Pens]

Key Players: Paul Pogba (France), Kylian Mbappe (France), Granit Xhaka (Switzerland), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)

The Euro 2016 finalists and 2018 World Cup winners were heavy favourites to win the tournament and looked likely to dispatch the Swiss and advance. With the recall of exiled striker Karim Benzema, France was meant to be an even better team. After an indifferent showing in the group stage, France still managed to clear as top seed of a very tough group. Flashes of brilliance were seen but, poor form of Mbappe and Benzema and lack of chemistry were signs of concern. Karim Benzema came alive in the last group stage draw against Portugal but, the dominance exhibited in previous tournaments was not apparent.  The game again the Swiss exhibited parallels with the earlier game between Spain and Croatia. France went down a goal due to poor positioning in the box and Swiss capitalized on the chance. France abandoned the back three by subbing out Clement Lenglet for Kingsley Coman and moved Rabiot and Pavard to the full backs. But things only got worse when Swiss were awarded a penalty in box. A huge save by the French captain Hugo Lloris led to change of winds followed by a genius first touch by Karim Benzema for a French equalizer. Then, France immediately took the momentum away and scored another goal. Paul Pogba introduced further damage with a worldie from outside the box.

The Swiss made changes to bring on some much needed energy and try to break France’s momentum. France failed to capitalize on several breakaway passes from Pogba and the Swiss pulled one back through another header from Haris Seferovic. A brilliant pass from Swiss captain Granit Xhaka setup the equalizing goal for Gavranovic to force the game into extra time. France then lost their Joker who shifted the momentum after Coman and Benzema exited due to injuries. The Swiss held on through extra time with a composed performance from Xhaka who broke several key passes. The game was settled in a nerve-wracking penalty shootout, the first four penalties were beautifully executed by both teams. The final penalty for the Swiss was taken by veteran Mehmedi who stepped up with a blank expression. He took his time and executed his kick to perfection. The last kick fell onto a superstar Mbappe who had an abysmal tournament, missed several key chances and clearly lacked the confidence but, this could have been his turning point in the tournament. But the penalty was saved by Sommer who waited a few seconds to get the all clear from the referee and celebrated a well-deserved Swiss victory.

Take home: A scar in Mbappe’s career but, a valuable lesson for the 22-year-old. Pogba and Kante both shined in the game with the former creating several key chances. France still possesses a world of talent with the World Cup just around the corner.

Day 4: Redemption and Rejoice

England vs Germany: 0 – 2

England and Germany both possess very young, talented squads with immense potential for years to come. After the initial loss to France, Germany showed a strong performance against Portugal but, drew with a “never say die” Hungary side. Similarly, England also played with the line-ups but, could not bring the best out their talisman Kane.  The two sides faced on in a slow and tactical approach in the first half. A stealthy finish by Sterling gave England the lead late in the second half but, Germany could not capitalize on the mistake by Sterling with Thomas Muller’s shot moving ever so wide of the goal post. Jack Grealish’s introduction opened up the goal for Harry Kane to score for England and they would hold on to a 2-0 lead. Germany’s attacks were unimaginative at this point only sending long balls to the box in hopes of a half chance at goal. England held on to finish a historic win in over 50 years against the former world champions.

Take Home: Grealish may the key to unlocking Kane for England. Germany can rejoice the successful tenure of Joachim Low and look forward to new mastermind in Flick. The German team has plenty of potential and Hansi-Flick with his success at Bayern and his understanding of the next generation may be the key to create another dynasty.

Sweden vs Ukraine: 1 – 2 (AET)

Key Players: Emil Forsberg (Sweden); Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)

Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine created history with a gritty performance and survived a dogged Swedish performance. Sweden missing talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who committed to return to national side for the tournament only to get injured) were still an emboldened team who put forward a strong group stage performance. A war of attrition between two sides who scored early first half goals was at a standstill and looking to be heading into penalties till Ukraine found some reserve energy to put the game to bed.

Predictions for the Quarter-Finals:

Belgium vs Italy:

Considered by many as the match that may provide the winner of the Euros, Belgium and Italy have shown some great football. Belgium will need their talisman Kevin de Bruyne, who took a knock in the Portugal game, in good form if they are to have any chance of winning against Italy. We saw Belgium completely lose their creativity after de Bruyne left the game against Portugal as did Man City in the Champions League final. They will need his dribbles to break through Jorginho and Verratti. Italy on the other hand have looked strong throughout this tournament but, needed extra time to put the game to bed against Austria. A tough game to call but a heavy tackle on de Bruyne might be all it takes to edge this for Italy.

Prediction: 1 – 2 (Italy Win)

Switzerland vs Spain:

Switzerland made headlines with a huge upset knocking out favourites France. Spain played a similar game but, managed to pull through in extra time against Croatia. Morata looks motivated and will be the key to help Spain go thorough to the semis.

Prediction: 0 – 2 (Spain Win)

England vs Ukraine:

England played a good game but, are still trying to figure out their best line-up to support Kane. Sterling has been phenomenal in this tournament and Mason Mount may feature in the next game after his stint in quarantine. Ukraine have done well to get as far as they have but will face a tough test in England who are desperate to get to the final this time around.

Prediction: 2 – 0 (England win)

Czech Republic vs Denmark:

After losing their first two games, the Danes bounced back valiantly with win over Russia and demolished Wales in the round of 16 with Kasper Dolberg rising up to the occasion at the perfect time. The Czechs have also shown resilience restricting the Dutch to a few chances and capitalizing on a mistake. They also have a star in Patrik Schick. This game a bit difficult to predict as Denmark possess a wealth of talent and a world class goal stopper in Kasper Schmeichel but, one cannot rule out the Czechs who are also playing with superior confidence.

Prediction: 1 – 0 (Czech win)

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Euro 2020 – Who Will Win?

Euro 2020 is just around the corner. The tournament will be played in 11 venues around Europe and will see fans returning to stadiums, some with partial capacity (22% in Munich for example) to full capacity (Budapest). With or without fans, there is plenty of room for drama, upsets and entertainment. We take a look at the tournament itself, the favourites, the rank outsiders and the dark horse and try to predict the winner. Enjoy!

Group A (Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and Wales)

Roberto Mancini has reignited the Italian national team which has lost only twice in three years and also topped their Nations league group. Italy will be captained by their traditional centre back Giorgio Chiellini but won’t be playing their traditional defensive football. Mancini’s team plays free flowing attacking football (tikitalia) through technically gifted midfielders like Jorginho, Veratti and Barella. In the front three of their 4-3-3 system they have quality and dynamism with options in Berradi, Immobile, Insigne and Chiesa. Italy are strong contenders and it wouldn’t be surprising if they made a deep run into the tournament after the disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup back in 2018.

Turkey can be the ultimate surprise package in the Euros as manager Senol Gunes will look to repeat the heroics of 2002 World Cup. They play counter attacking football in either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation with defensive midfielder Okay Yokuslu dictating the play. The Turks can do a high press but like to adjust it based on their opponent’s passing abilities. They have a solid centre back pairing of Leicester City’s Soyuncu and Juventus’s Demiral. Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu provides creativity and flair in attack for Yusuf Yazici and the bulldozer of a striker, and captain Burak Yilmaz who will be crucial for Turkey in the tournament.  They are the dark horses and will be looking to shock the big footballing nations.

Burak Yilmaz will be key to Turkey advancing through the tournament

Switzerland mostly features in a 3-4-1-2 formation. They are a physically strong team and not easy to break down. The wingbacks get heavily involved in the attacks whilst captain Granit Xhaka’s passing sets the overall rhythm. Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri also plays a key role as the no.10, dropping between opposition’s lines and linking up play. Their main strength is defensive solidarity. The Swiss won their Euro qualification group by only conceding 6 goals in 8 games.

Wales also play with 3 centre backs in a 3-4-3 formation with the ball and defend with a 5-4-1 system. They look to hurt teams on counter attacks through pacy wingers in Gareth Bale and Daniel James. Harry Wilson operates as a fluid false 9 and Aaron Ramsey’s late runs in the box provides additional threat. The alternative attacking approach is the deployment of 6’5” striker Kieffer Moore as a target man. Wales do have star power in their starting 11 but lack depth in squad.

Group Prediction: This is a tight group and the toughest to call (other than the group of death), Italy’s home advantage for all 3 games should see them through as winners, with Turkey pipping Switzerland to second space and Wales finishing bottom. 1st- Italy, 2nd- Turkey, 3rd- Switzerland, 4th- Wales

Group B (Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Russia)

The No. 1 ranked international team, Belgium will feature in a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 formation. The formidable three man backline of past tournaments is not as solid as it once was as Vertonghen and Alderweireld are past their prime and Vincent Kompany now retired, but they can still keep it tight at the back when needed. The best playmaker in the world, Kevin De Bruyne doesn’t hesitate to take the shooting opportunities and with Romelu Lukaku leading the line, they are arguably the most lethal team in the competition. De Bruyne will miss the first game against Russia due to facial injuries as will Eden Hazard likely who has been injury riddled this season. They also don’t have any “home” games but are still the heavy favourites to top the group.

Can Belgium live you to the hype and lift the European Championships trophy?

New manager Hjumland sets the Danish team in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Christensen, Kjaer and Vestegaard provide good options for centre back, holding midfielders Hojberg and Delaney provide security in the centre of the pitch whilst playmaker Christian Eriksen is crucial for the team as he often finds the net for his national side. The experienced Braithwaite and Poulsen are decent options upfront as are the younger pairing of Dolberg and Olsen giving Hjumland much to ponder. Denmark will play their three group games at home which definitely boosts their chances for qualification to further stages.

Stanislav Cherchesov is a flexible coach and won’t be afraid to switch his system based on the opposition, but the Russians are most likely to feature in a 4-2-3-1. Artem Dyuba had the best season of his career for Zenit and would be looking to carry that energy to the Euros. Roman Zobnin is the main man in terms of keeping things ticking from the midfield. There are however major doubts about the quality of defence and the lack of experience in goal with the three keepers selected for the squad only earning a combined 13 caps. The Russians will hope the home crowd in the first two games can drive them to good results before travelling to Denmark for their final test.

First time qualifiers, Finland change between a four man and a five man defence and are likely to use the latter given the pedigree of their opponents. They have reliable players in Rangers star Glen Kamara and Norwich’s Teemu Pukki, who has been in good goal scoring form for his country, as well as a good stopper in Lukas Hradecky. That said, they are rank outsiders to get out of the group and are therefore the are the underdogs and like Belgium won’t play any games at home so qualifying for the knockout stages will be difficult.

Group Prediction: It will be a close race for the second spot between Russia and Denmark that will be decided when they face each other on the third matchday.

1st- Belgium, 2nd- Denmark, 3rd- Russia, 4th- Finland

Group C ( Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia)

Netherlands mostly use a 4-3-3 but Frank de Boer prefers a five man back line against higher quality opponents. Despite missing Virgil Van Dijk, they still have top notch centre backs in Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij. Depay, who had a great season with Lyon is deployed as a no. 9 or out wide, and they also have an option of a target man in Luke de Jong. Quality midfielders Marten de Roon and Frenkie de Jong control the tempo of the game well whilst Wijnaldum provides an additional goal threat by playing in advanced positions. There are doubts over de Boer’s ability to get the best out of this star studded squad but their quality should be enough to see out the group stage with ease.

de Boer will have to manage technically if they are to win overall but many fear that he doesn’t have the experience of past tournaments

Like the Dutch, Ukraine also plays a 4-3-3 system and switches to five at the back against stronger opponents. They have a strong midfield with Taras Stepanenko doing the defensive work, Zinchenko providing the creativity and Ruslan Malivnoskyi, who had a sensational finish to his campaign at Atlanta, deployed in the box-to-box role. Their main attacking threat comes from Roman Yaremchuk who had a great season with Gent, scoring 23 goals. The Ukrainians are capable of pulling some impressive results like the draw against France in March and the win against Spain last year in Nations league so they might be on the serving end of an upset or two at Euro 2020.

Austria, who haven’t won a game in a major tournament since the 1990 World Cup, mostly line up in a 4-4-2 formation. Unlike many international teams, Austria has a well oiled press. Similar to Zinchenko, versatile Alaba often features in midfield for Austria rather than in his natural defensive position. Captain Julian Baumgartlinger and Stefan Ilansker also provide composure and experience in midfield whilst the unpredictable Marcel Sabitzer gives the x factor in attack. They have an interesting striker in 6ft 7in, Sasa Kalajdzic who had an amazing campaign for Stuttgart and could be one to watch.

North Macedonia switches between a 4 man and 3 man defence and plays counter attacking football with 2 strikers up front. They are the weakest side in the competition but that win against Germany would give the North Macedonian players and fans much hope. Ilija Nestorovski’s absence will be a big miss meaning that the pressure is on Genoa striker Goran Pandev to be the star player in the no. 10 role. Leeds fullback Ezgjan Alioski at times features in the midfield giving them better coverage and they have an exciting player in Elif Elmas who showed glimpses of his talent this season with Napoli.

Group Prediction: 1st- Netherlands, 2nd- Ukraine, 3rd- Austria, 4th- North Macedonia

North Macedonia take part in their first ever international tournament

Group D ( Croatia, Czech Republic, England and Scotland)

2018 World Cup finalists, Croatia play possession based football in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. With Brozovic, Modric and Kovacic they have a premium midfield, though Modric is well off his prime now. They also have excellent wingers in Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic, who regularly puts up impressive shifts for the national team whilst Mislav Orsic offers another option as a dangerous sub. Andrej Kramaric is likely to be the first choice striker while 6ft 3in Bruno Petkovic will provide a different and useful alternative. 32 year old Domagoj Vida will be anchoring the defence as always looking to add to his 88 caps so far. The Croatians are no longer seen as the dark horse and it would be a shock if they don’t progress through the group stage.

Czech Republic plays high energy counter attacking football mostly in a 4-2-3-1 shape. They like to fill the attacking third with runners in Sampdoria’s Jakub Jankto and West Ham’s Tomas Soucek who grabbed 10 goals for the Hammers in an identical role. Up front, Patrick Schick is a dynamic centre forward who will be their main threat. The Czechs push their full backs high up in attack with Coufal in particular on the right capable of amazing deliveries. Ondrej Kudela’a suspension and Lukas Provod’s injury are big blows, with the centre back’s suspension more so as the Czechs are weak in the defence. They might not be the most skilled team but they will put up a great fight every time.

Southgate prefers a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 system with two holding midfielders and switches to three centre backs against bigger opponents. England have luxurious options for full backs and attacking positions but the fitness of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson has raised concerns about whether they will be ready or not. Both of them are important parts of the team and would be starters if they are fit. Kane and Mount seem to be definite starters for Southgate and to build a lethal attack around them, he would be trying to find the optimum balance of pace and creativity from Grealish, Foden, Sterling, Rashford and Sancho all in contention to start. Declan Rice has also become vital, protecting the back line and anchoring the play from midfield. Stones would be looking to carry on from an impressive season with Manchester City. England has the star power to go all the way but it would come down to Southgate’s ability to match and outplay teams tactically, which he is not the best at.

Will Maguire and Henderson be fit enough to play in the group stages?

Scotland’s most preferred system is 3-5-2, which accommodates in deploying two brilliant left backs in Tierney and Roberston. Robertson plays higher up on the left whilst Tierney fits in as the left sided centre-back but they have the freedom to switch roles during the game. In midfield, McGregor and McTominay give solidarity whilst John McGinn provides attacking impetus through his runs. And they can also call upon youngster Billy Gilmour who has the ability to turn games on its head despite his lack of international experience. Armstrong takes the responsibility for creating opportunities from midfield and his Southampton teammate, Che Adams will likely be the main man up front although Dykes does offer another option. Steve Clarke’s highly rated tactical skills will be important for Scotland’s European campaign and it won’t be surprising if he shuffles his players and system from game to game.

Group prediction: England and Croatia should be able to progress with ease, albeit the Czechs and the Scots have the potential to pull shocking results.

1st- England, 2nd- Croatia- 3rd- Czech Republic 4th- Scotland

Group E (Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden)

Spain play their traditional possession football in a 4-3-3 shape. They are rich in options from the keeper to the striker. In the absence of their leader Ramos, Laporte has switched national allegiance to give Luis Enrique options for ball playing centre backs alongside Eric Garcia and Pau Torres. Marcus Llorente interestingly plays in the right back position. Rodri or captain Busquets will take the midfield anchor role with Koke, Thiago Alcantara, Fabian Ruiz and Pedri offering creative outlets from midfield. Ferran Torres, one of the few definite starters, cuts into spaces behind and has been making the most of his great finishing ability. Morata and Moreno will compete for the striker position with the latter likely featuring more from the bench. This is a relatively new Spanish team which can play beautiful football like the previous ones but is also capable of playing direct and being threatening in transitions through pacy wingers.

Sweden play a solid 4-4-2 out possession. It was a surprise by manager Janne Andersson to call Zlatan back in the squad after a number of years but only for him to miss the tournament due to injury. Sweden will still have plenty of quality up front despite the absence of their most famous player. Zlatan-esque, Isak is an amazing talent who can run in behind as well as hold up the ball well. On the wing, Emil Forsberg can find spaces and create well while Dejan Kulusevski gives directness in attacks by running straight at defenders. Krasnodar trio of Viktor Claesson, Kristoffer Olsson, and Marcus Berg make up a well bonded midfield/attack combo. They are resolute and can be hard to break down for any team.

Will the lack of Zlatan be a hinderance to Sweden’s chances?

Poland use a flexible approach, with the ball they line up in a 3-4-1-2 and switch to four at the back without it. After sacking manager Jerzy Brzeczek due to complications with star player Lewandowski, Paulo Sousa is still in only his fifth month in charge and has yet to impress. Lewandowski is likely to be paired with Milik up front with Swiderski providing back up from the bench. Left-back Maceij Rybus is important to attacks making overlapping runs and Piotr Zielinski pulls the strings from an advanced midfield role. Lewandowski can win games on his own, especially if he can continue his record breaking season into the tournament. Sousa’s tactical decision will be crucial and that adds a sense of unknown to Poland.

Slovakia, who qualified for the Euros in a dramatic fashion, are a counter attacking side and would be sitting in deep low blocks every game. Skriniar is vital in the centre of defence and he also scored two goals for Slovakia in March. Top Scorer Marek Hamsik who moved to Sweden to gain fitness for the Euros can be deployed as a striker due to poor finishing record of Michal Duris. They are the second weakest side after North Macedonia and it will be some story if they progress through the group stage.

Group prediction: Spain are the clear favourites but it would be interesting to see how they break down the defensive teams. It would be tight between Sweden and Poland for the second spot. 1st- Spain, 2nd- Sweden, 3rd- Poland, 4th- Slovakia

Group E ( France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal)

France play in their well recognized 4-2-3-1 system with one winger cutting inside and the other being Kylian Mbappe. They are the strongest team in the competition with midfield duo of Kante and Pogba and a backline of Varane, Kimbepe and Bayern full backs, Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. National team superstar, Griezmann works in the no. 10 role and will have an eye for another individual award having won the Bronze Ball and Golden Boot separately in the last two major tournaments. Benzema’s return will add more flexibility to an already lethal front line. There will be no room for mistakes against the World Champions especially in the group of death.

Can World Champions France also win Euro 2020?

Joachim Low doesn’t have a defined system for his current German team but he mostly switches between a 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3.  Hummels, who has been called up after a break, will probably form the central defence with Rudiger. Quality of midfield options in Kroos, Gundogan and Goretzka allows Kimmich to feature in a right wing back or full back role with the impressive Robin Gosens on the other side. Their attacking options are as potent as anyone. There is a lot of pace and flair up front in Sane, Gnabry, Werner and Havertz. Muller adds the experience and awareness and often features in the striker role as Werner’s poor club form has transcended into his international form of late. Unlike past German teams, they lack clear identity and individual excellence might be needed to get through this dreadful group.

Defending champions Portugal are even stronger than the last euros and will line up either in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. In defence, Ruben Dias will be paired with a 38 years old Pepe who has aged like a fine wine. They have a prolific pair of attack minded full backs in Joao Cancelo and Raphael Guerreiro. In midfield, Danilo Perriera is the main holding midfielder and Fernandes makes runs into advanced positions. The wide areas are blessed with talents like Bernardo Silva and Jota making inward runs. The extraordinary Ronaldo features in the centre forward position but they also have the option of Andre Silva there who had a sensational season with Frankfurt. They can sometimes appear very cautious and rightly so but a better balance can make them back to back European champions.

Hungary play with a 3-5-2 system which shifts to a five man backline for large portions of the match. Their attacking approach is playing direct to Adam Szalai with Roland Sallai making runs off him. RB Leipzig duo Peter Gulasci and Willi Orban will be core members of the backline. Dominik Szoboszlai, another Leipzig player, is out injured and will be hugely missed. His technical and creative abilities is what the Hungarian side lacks the most. It will be the biggest surprise of the tournament if Hungary progresses through this group. Though they will play their first two games home in a fully packed stadium and a possible German collapse could open the doors in the third game.

Who will survive the Group stage and who will be going home?

Knockout stages and winners prediction

The format of four out of six 3rd place teams progressing offers some room for mistakes in the group stages. And it will also lead to easy opponents for some in the round of 16. Importance of squad depth and tactical flexibility will grow through the stages. Teams’ fates will also depend on avoiding the big giants and unfavoured tactical opponents. 

Winners- Belgium: The squad is in their prime with the average age around 29 and also the most experienced with players averaging around 50 caps each. De Bruyne and Lukaku are entering the Euros on the back of phenomenal individual club campaign’s. This also might be the last chance for the golden generation to win a major trophy as they would need to revamp their defence soon. 

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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All Aboard the Managerial Merry-go-round

The departure of Carlo Ancelotti from Everton to rejoin Real Madrid came as a shock to many especially those in and around the club. Having only hired the Italian 18 months ago in what at the time was deemed as a masterstroke, Everton now find themselves with a massive gap to fill and a search for their 6th manager in five years. But Ancelotti’s return to the Bernabeau only came about when Zinedine Zidane decided enough was enough and walked away. The sentiment from the Frenchman was that he no longer felt that the club had faith in him or the willingness to support his longer term vision so taking his leave seemed to be the only solution. His actions however as well as the actions of a few other high profile managers in Italy, Germany and France have acted as the catalyst for change in the managerial world and kick started the merry go round of moves that we are now witnessing across Europe’s top five leagues.

The question is not really where to begin but instead where to stop given the vast number of changes that have and are set to happen. Managerial changes throughout Europe’s leagues are at an all time high with adjustments being made both by the clubs due to the after effects of a global pandemic which crippled the football financial ecosystem and by the managers themselves who need change after an intense pressure filled season. No league felt this more than Italy so it seems like a good a place as any to start.

Antonio Conte’s decision to leave Inter only days after guiding them to their first Scudetto in 11 years highlighted the financial impact of the pandemic which has ravaged the game. Unable to strengthen his squad in the summer due to financial cut backs at the club, Conte decided like Zidane to quit. He was quickly replaced by Simone Inzaghi who led Lazio to a sixth placed finish. Simone faces the prospect of taking Conte’s squad and selling off one or two of its prize assets as the club looks to pull back €80m. Lazio are yet to announce their new manager but are being heavily linked with Maurizio Sarri.

Conte’s decision to depart sparked a host of various other managerial moves

The former Chelsea manager has been out of work since leaving Juventus in 2020 when they decided to test out Andres Pirlo as manager with the hopes that the former midfield maestro could have the Zidane effect on Juve. That didn’t work out in the end and he will depart this summer with Massimilano Allegri returning to the club he left in 2019. Jose Mourinho is also returning to Italy this time with Roma after they let Paulo Fonseca go last month. Fonseca has yet to decide on his next move but has been heavily linked with Tottenham and Wolves as well as several other clubs across Europe.

The one season manager does seem to be a reoccurring trend in Italy with Conte only lasted at Inter a year having replaced Luciano Spalletti in 2019. Incidentally, Spalletti himself is also on the move this summer joining Napoli after the exit of Gennaro Gattuso to Fiorentina. Gattuso is the long term replacement for Cesare Prandelli who sensationally quit in March citing a feeling of distress as well as personal reasons behind his decision. Gattuso spent two years at Napoli after replacing Carlo Ancelotti who was sacked only a couple of weeks before he showed up at Everton.

Speaking of Everton, the race to replace Ancelotti is well under way with former Everton and now West Ham boss David Moyes tipped for a sensational return. However the club is also rumoured to be considering Eddie Howe (out of work since leaving Bournemouth) and Nuno Espírito Santo who left Wolves just a few weeks ago. Howe who was in advanced talks with Celtic before turning them down, is also in the running for the vacant role at Crystal Palace after Roy Hodgson took his leave. Ex Chelsea boss Frank Lampard is also in the frame for that role as is ironically Santo who could spur a tug of war between the two clubs as they jostle for their number one pick. Meanwhile at Celtic, they are looking more seriously at Ange Postecoglou having failed to get Howe or Jesse Marsch in earlier attempts.

Will Eddie Howe return to management in the EPL with Everton or Crystal Palace?

Marsch chose to move to RB Leipzig this summer from Red Bull Salzburg as the automatic replacement for Bayern bound Julian Nagelsmann. It will be an exciting challenge for the American that will have him pitting his wits against one of the brightest young coaches in the game right now in Nagelsmann. The 33 year old german takes over at Bayern Munich from Hansi Flick who will take the reins of the German national team following the completion of Euro 2020. Elsewhere, Marco Rose will join Borussia Dortmund as manager in the summer, with Borussia Monchengladbach hiring Adi Hutter from Eintracht Frankfurt as his replacement. They in turn hired Oliver Glasner from Wolfsburg who in turn then appointed former PSV boss Mark van Bommel as their new manager. Finally Leverkausen grabbed Gerardo Seoane from Young Boys Berne as they looked to make a quick replacement for the Lyon bound Peter Bosz.

In France, the big news surrounds Christophe Galtier and his next destination after he sensationally steered Lille to the French title last season. Days later he would quit the club and has been linked with a host of jobs including Spurs and indeed looked likely to end up at OGC Nice before a gap in the compensation package appeared too big to bridge. There are also rumours starting that Zidane could replace Mauricio Pochettino at PSG if the Argentine makes a sensational return to Tottenham.

This summer will see changes at a host of other European clubs including Montpellier HSC, RC Strasbourg Alsace, Angers SCO in France, a new managerial appointment at Valencia with Jose Bordalas signing on from Getafe and in England, West Brom and Sheffield United are at different stages of their process with West Brom still considering candidates whilst Sheffield United have moved quickly confirmed Slavisa Jokanovic as their new boss.

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Spurs mull over potential replacements for Kane as he eyes the exit door

Spurs fan’s biggest nightmare is likely about to come true. Club legend Harry Kane, after a 17 year association with the London club, has stated he wants to leave. It’s the hunt for trophies that has made the English skipper so desperate to find a new club. Tottenham, who are without a trophy since 2008, reached the UCL final in 2019 but since then have only drifted away from the top level. Kane is regarded as one of the best strikers in the world and big clubs all over Europe would love to have him in their team. However, it won’t be that simple. Kane signed a 6-year contract with Spurs in 2018, tying him up with the club till 2024. This gives Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy an upper hand in the negotiations. Levy would fight hard to keep hold of his best player and the minimum £120 million price tag would be hard to meet for the buyers in a pandemic hit transfer market. But a couple of big money signings and the spending domino could start to fall. Kane will need to be determined to force his way out of the club and if he does, what’s does that mean for Spurs?

Replacing Kane and his goals, if possible, would be stressful for the decision makers at Spurs. The dependency on him has only increased this season as he is not only the top goal scorer but also the highest assist maker for Spurs as well as in the league, recording 23 goals and 14 assists. His technical ability, finishing skills, and vision makes him a complete player who can win matches on his own. That makes you think, anyone except a few generational talents would be a downgrade from one of the most lethal strikers. Spurs, a club in managerial limbo and downward trajectory doesn’t seem like an attractive proposition to the talents of Mbappe or Haaland. So, Spurs would need more than one astute attacking signing to replace Kane’s numbers and receipts from his sale would allow that.

Manchester United and Manchester City are among the front runners for Kane’s signature. A deal with one of those clubs could lead to Anthony Martial or Gabriel Jesus heading to Spurs. Martial would bring pace with decent finishing ability. But the French international’s movement is not great, he doesn’t get involved in build-ups and can disappear in games. On the other side, Jesus’s link-up play is highly underrated and the Brazilian could lead the front line by pressing with great intensity. However, there are doubts about his finishing skills, as he often misses good scoring opportunities. Both Jesus and Martial are yet to hit the 20 goal mark in an EPL season.

Would Manchester City use Gabriel Jesus as part of a player plus money deal for Kane?

Other striking options from within the league are Southampton’s Danny Ings and Leeds United’s Patrick Bamford. Ings only has 12 months left on his contract and given his recent goalscoring exploits could be looking to sign for a big English club. Ings boasts good technical skills and link-up play as well as being potent in front of goal and can put up impressive numbers like he did in the 19/20 season (22 goals in 38 league appearances). However, his injury record is a worry and often hinders him from maintaining his form. Given that Ings could be signed for a relatively low fee, it would be a good coup for Spurs if they sign him as one of the pillars to Kane’s replacement package and not the direct replacement. Patrick Bamford just completed another strong season for Leeds, registering 17 goals and 7 assists. Bamford’s movement and build-up play is impressive and he could fit well in the Spurs team. But there might be a disparity between his market value and his value for Leeds. And there is also the question that most of Bielsa’s players face – how would he fair in a non-Bielsa organized side?

Outside England, there have been links with Andre Silva and Memphis Depay. The Portuguese striker had an incredible season for Frankfurt, on loan from Milan. Silva scored 28 goals and assisted 5 from 32 games for Eintracht Frankfurt this season. He is lethal inside the box and brilliant with headers but he doesn’t get much involved in the build-up play. The 25 year old’s release clause of £26 million could be activated in the summer with several top clubs competing for his signature but Spurs can weigh up their chances by offering him a starting position.

Silva has a proven goalscoring record with 92 career goals in 235 appearances but could he fill Kane’s boots?

Depay had a prolific season for Lyon, scoring 20 and assisting 12 goals from 37 appearances in Ligue 1. The Dutch international is definite to leave this summer and is heavily linked with Barcelona but that could change with Barca’s decision about Koeman’s future still pending. His pace and movement are his best attributes and can take on different roles in the front-line. His transfer move would cost around £50 million but there may be some doubts about taking a gamble on Depay after his failure to ignite when at Manchester United. The Dutchman only scored twice in 39 appearances for the Red Devils over two ill fated seasons. Has he shown enough growth as a player and in his game at Lyon to warrant a sizable investment?

Coping with the departure of your best player is never easy, especially when he is also the highest goal scorer. With no manager in charge, who is going to envision the signings on the pitch? Can Spurs be efficient in the transfer market and have they learned from making a series of underwhelming signings from Bale’s sale money? Of the seven players signed with that money, only one (Lamela) remains and arguably only a couple more could be deemed a success. There is also a question of whether Kane’s desperation to leave give a sense to other players outside of the club that Spurs is not the place to be? These are tough questions that Levy & Co. may have to work around.

Some help can also come from within the existing squad. There would be room for Son to step up and finally reach the 20 goals a season mark. The likes of Ndombele and Lo Celso can increase goal contributions from midfield. Or there is the possibility of retaining Bale for one more season, this time in a more central role. At the same time, with one of their leaders leaving, the team’s belief and confidence could be seriously hampered. Using some of Kane’s transfer to bring in a new leader might be worth considering as well. All in all this could be the most important transfer window in Spurs modern history. If Kane is sold early on in the window, there is potential to bring in new players and rejuvenate a squad that has failed to get over the line a number of times. But a late departure or the wrong players being brought in could also spurn the possibility that Kane’s departure will result in Spurs downfall. Oh to be Daniel Levy right now.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Hammers on Fire Thanks to Astute Transfer Business

At the start of the season, no one would have put their money on West Ham fighting for a Champions League spot. Yet, here we are with two games left to play and they sit 7th on the table, 4 points behind Liverpool in 5th. The Hammers, who finished 16th last season, have done some smart business in the transfer market to turnaround their reality. They are notoriously famous for being too ambitious in the transfer market, for chasing glamorous players instead of the right ones. However, there has been a change of approach in signing players in the last couple of years at West Ham. David Sullivan, the club owner, has reduced his own influence on player recruitment and let manager David Moyes be the decisive man on that matter. Moyes has bought players desperate to prove themselves as well as found some hidden gems without breaking the bank in doing so. The impact of their recent signings is visible all over the pitch from defence to attack and has resulted in instant success.

The key signings

Tomáš Souček – Initially brought on loan in January 2020, and then signed permanently last summer from Slavia Prague for £15 million, Soucek is a prime candidate for signing of the season. Naturally a defensive midfielder, he has been deployed by Moyes more in a box-to-box role, making late runs in the box. He has given West Ham a real goal threat from midfield and is the co-highest goal scorer for West Ham this season along with Jesse Lingard and Michail Antonio, scoring 9 goals while also being a defensive pillar in midfield. The Czech hardly ever stops running when on the pitch, constantly providing his team defensive cover and getting involved in attacks. On average, he covers 12.2km per game, which is highest in the league alongside Brighton’s Pascal Gross. Soucek’s aerial prowess is another asset that stands out. Against a very physical Burnley side a couple of weeks ago, he set the record for most aerial duels won by a player in a match this season with 17. With Soucek no missing a single league games for the Hammers in 20/21, this might be the best £15 million West Ham has ever spent as the 26 year old is only going to grow in value with the numbers he is producing.

Soucek has proven to be a bargain for West Ham. After impressing on loan, West Ham parted with £15 million in one of the best pieces of transfer business this season.

Vladimír Coufal – Another great Soucek contribution for West Ham was telling Moyes about Coufal. This hidden gem was also signed from Salvia Prague for just £5.5 million in the summer and has been sensational down the right flank. The Czech has made the Hammers’ backline more solid and possesses amazing crossing ability, grabbing 6 assists in his first EPL season. His physical strength, high work rate and good tackling ability makes him a barricade for the opposition wingers. The right back is often deployed by Moyes as a wingback when playing with a three man backline, and contributes to attacks not just just through crosses but also linking up the play well and being efficient on the ball. The 28 year old has garnered praise from his manager for his attitude. Moyes claims that the two Czech internationals have brought a winning mentality to the squad, which is required when trying to keep up with the big dogs. Bought after Fredericks picked up an injury early in the season, Coufal has now made the position his own, starting 32 league games this season. West Ham fans could be assured that their right flank is in good hands under Coufal, who keeps the opposition attackers at bay while providing attacking impetus going forward.

Jesse Lingard – Signed on loan in January until the end of the season, Lingard came to West Ham on a mission to prove his doubters wrong. The England International has scored 9 and created 3 in just 14 appearances. He has already paid back the dividends plus extra for his £1.5 million loan fee having scored crucial goals in West Ham’s race for European football. With West Ham keen to sign on him on a permanent transfer, the only downfall regarding Lingard’s recent performances, is that it will likely add a few millions more to United’s asking price. Mostly used as a no.10, Lingard operates with great dynamism and flexibility, interchanging positions with the wingers. Even if his goal scoring slowed down, he would still have a lot to offer with great link-up play and an eye for a defence splitting pass. The 28 year old has already become a popular figure in the West Ham dressing room because of his charismatic personality and has a great relationship with Moyes. Making his move permanent would be on top of West Ham’s list, although his price tag and interest from bigger clubs will be an issue in that pursuit.

Craig Dawson – His impact goes often under the radar compared to other arrivals but he has been as influential as the other loan signing up front. Initially brought as a cover to Diop, Ogbonna and Balbuena, Dawson was given a chance after injuries in the back line and he grabbed it with both hands. Brought on loan in October, the experienced centre back has become integral to West Ham’s amazing season. As a part of his clause, West Ham will be making Dawson’s transfer from Watford permanent for just £2 million as he has made more than 15 league appearances this season. He has brought great leadership and organization to the Hammers defence for a very economical price. With a high tackle success rate of 78%, Dawson also has an eye for the occasional centre back goal having scored 4 this season in all competitions. In Dawson, Moyes has found someone to rely on and base his defence around for future seasons.

Dawson arrived quietly but has impressed hugely under Moyes with his move set to be made permanent this summer.

One signing that hasn’t quite lived up to expectations is Said Behnrama but there is still a sense of hope that he could come to fruition in the next season. The Algerian, signed from Brentford for £26 million has shown glimpses of his creative abilities and has managed to get 5 assists in 28 appearances but still has a lot to do to live up to his transfer fee. He did manage to open his goalscoring account for the Hammers at the weekend against Brighton with a beautiful curling shot from outside of the area which will have pleased Moyes and the player himself. There is no doubt about his talent and could be given a grace period as it’s only his first season in the English top flight.

The kind of signings West Ham would want to distance themselves from is of Sebastian Haller. Signing a big name player for a huge fee and then being forced to sell them for a loss after a period of underwhelming performances. Haller arrived with a lot of promise after being part of the Eintracht Frankfurt trio strike force of Haller, Rebic and Jovic. Whilst Rebic left for AC Milan and Jovic joined Real Madrid, Haller headed for London but under false pretences. Whoever scouted Haller clearly did a poor job and looked only at his goalscoring and assist numbers and his height (6ft 3in) instead of how he fitted into that Frankfurt frontline and how he scored most of his goals. He was labelled as a target man which he isn’t (he prefers to dribble more and drop deep to pick up the ball) and from then on never really fit with how West Ham wanted to play. Hardly his fault but an expensive lesson all the same for the Hammers.

Haller should not be considered a failure, more a mistake by the club who bought him to perform a role which wasn’t his strength

Trust in Moyes’ judgement should be carried on into this summer as they will look to build up on this season’s success. It would be impressive if they again pick up some right pieces from lower or lesser known leagues. West Ham’s main priority going into summer is signing a new striker. The Hammers are being linked to Tammy Abraham, who has struggled to get into Tuchel’s Chelsea team. Abraham’s style of play would suit Moyes’ system and he has also proved that he can shine in the Premier League. The other option is Ivan Toney who has been lighting up the Championship for Brentford. They could also improve between the posts with Fanianski now 36 and not as nibble as before. They have been linked to Sam Johnstone, who recently received an England call-up and would be looking to find a club in the Premier League as West Brom already relegated. West Ham will want to keep hold of Declan Rice as well but if a too hard to resist offer arrives from a big side, they could use that money to find a replacement and upgrade other positions. However it would be burdensome to find someone who can dictate passes and protect the backline the way Rice does.

If West Ham can continue doing their transfer business in the same vein to the last couple of windows they could surely become a familiar face at the top half of the table. A top 6 finish this season would not only attract quality players but also deepen West Ham’s pocket. It would be some achievement if Moyes can pull it off, given those who doubted that he still had what it took as a manager. Success for West Ham under Moyes looks possible especially if they keep making the right decisions on the pitch as well as in the transfer market.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Will Hans-Dieter Flick mastermind for the next evolution of the German National team?

July 2021 marks the end of era in history of the German National team with the charismatic manager, Joachim Löw taking his last bow for ‘die mannschaft’ after the Euro 2020. Löw took over as manager after the 2006 World Cup and transformed the team fortunes leading them to World Cup victory in Brazil in 2014. His 15-year tenure revolutionized Germany’s identity as a nation and a leader in global football.  

The 1990 World Cup signified a turning point in its history. A mere few months after West Germany’s win at that tournament, they reunified with their Eastern counterpart forming the now known unified Germany. Instead of building on that success, Germany struggled to find its footing on the international scene. They did managed to win the 1996 European Championships in England but with an aging squad. There were also promising signs at the 2006 World Cup as well which was on home turf. Despite a semi-final exit, they showed the world a fun summer World Cup (breaking the typical stern-faced German stereotypes) and bright young talents (Lukas Podolski, Per Mertesacker, Bastian Schweinsteiger) got to shine on the big stage.

Exit stage right – Low is set to depart from the German National job after Euro 2020

The German footballing authority looked to build on this momentum with a new manager (Löw) with fresh ideologies to foster the young and hungry talents that the country bore. The emergence of Pep Guardiola and the Tiki-Taka footballing philosophy along with Spain’s dominance at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 only strengthened the notion that change was needed. International success usually comes on the heel of domestic success at club level. But German football clubs at the time were struggling to compete with clubs in the more opulent European leagues.

So, the clubs in german pivoted towards a new approach focused on developing home grown players and investing in young and upcoming managers with new ideas for long term success. The move would turn out to be a watershed moment in german football. Case in point, Jurgen Klöpp who brought success to Borussia Dortmund through recruitment and development of young players by educating them on a new chic of counter pressing style of football labelled Gegenpressing. This put Dortmund back on to the big stage again after breaking the Bundesliga dominance held by Bayern Munich with successive domestic titles.

Jurgen Klopp is one of several managers who benefited from a change in mindset in german football

This period of time in the Bundesliga also clubs spend more on international talent recruitment. It coincided with Germany as a country opening its borders more to immigrants in the hope of creating a new national identity and providing an economic stimulus. Some of the then “unknown gems” to shine in the German league at this time included Shinji Kagawa, Heung-Min Son and Roberto Firmino to name a few. Dortmund also produced several young talented german players who would go on to make up the core of the German national team that won the World Cup in 2014. Even now, the approach is being replicated with several german clubs entrusting younger managers who can relate and understand the new generation of players like Thomas Tüchel and Julian Nagelsmann.

This thinking will likely also be applied to the selection of the new German national manager once Low departs. The German national team managerial job is a highly coveted position with a long line of history and pride so finding willing applicants should not be an issue. However selecting the right manager who can work with a new crop of exciting german players is the priority. Last year, four of the top five managers in European football were German coaches (Jurgen Klopp, Hans-Dieter Flick, Thomas Tüchel and Julian Nagelsmann); all of whom got their respective starts in management at a young age. Of them, Bayern Munich’s Hans-Dieter Flick seems to be the best fit for the national job. He was Joachim Löw’s assistant from 2006-2014 with the German National team before getting the nod for managerial career to begin in the Bundesliga on an interim basis taking over from Niko Kovac at Bayern. After getting the managerial job on full time basis, he guided the Bundesliga champions to a continental treble including the Champions League which he won against the Thomas Tuchel led Paris Saint Germain.

Flick waves goodbye to Bayern and hello to the German National managers job

Flick recently expressed his interest in taking over as the next manager of the national team after announcing his own desire to leave Bayern. After a long internal political struggle, Bayern Munich relinquished any chances to change Flick’s mind and hired Julian Nagelsmann from RB Leipzig for the 2021-2022 season. After successfully leading 1899 Hoffenheim to their first Champions League qualification, he then led RB Leipzig to their first Champions league semi-final spot in 2020. Despite his young age (he’s still only 33), Nagelsmann was touted by several big names in Europe to lead their club.  Bayern Munich moved quickly to secure their man and signed Nagelsmann for a hefty sum (€25 million) in order to break his contract with RB Leipzig in a move of utter dominance.

The German FA can now make a move for Flick, their first choice to take over after the Euro 2020. And rightly so. Flick mastermind the reemergence of Bayern Munich as a dominant player in Europe after a disastrous spell under Carlo Ancelotti and Niko Kovac. Part of his masterplan was to pinpoint the key players in the squad who he could work closely with to change the tide. The resurgence of Thomas Müller behind the striker and Joshua Kimmich’s deep runs from central midfield provided a new dynamic flow to Bayern Munich’s football. Given his relationship with Bayern Munich squad who make up the core of German national team and the vast number of talented players playing across Europe, come the summer 2021 and beyond it is hard to see Germany going anywhere but forward.  

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

A Summer of Transition Ahead For Crystal Palace

With the regular season soon drawing to a close, Crystal Palace has some decisions to make soon as 12 of their players are out of contract this summer. With the manager, Roy Hodgson and a dozen of his players running out of contract, a rebuild at Crystal Palace is on the table. And the timing may just work in their favour. With the pandemic rattling club finances all over Europe, promising players can be signed for relatively cheaper transfer fees than previously. Added into this, with players looking to secure their own futures following a difficult period, they may accept lower wages just to resign for the club.

A majority of the players approaching the end of their term at the London club will be 30 or older by the summer. Averaging at 28.2, Palace is the second oldest team in the league. Freshen up the squad should be a priority and Palace have already made some moves within the club towards that.

Crystal Palace face a summer of change with a majority of its first team out of contract

Academy talents Jesurun Rak-Sakyi and David Omilabu have signed their first professional contracts with Palace recently after Fionn Mooney, Jadan Raymond and Tayo Adaramola did the same. Promoting from within with be welcome news for the Palace fans. Signing up Rak-Sakyi, who was included on the bench for the visit to Stamford Bridge on 20th April, was seen as a positive move after reports of the attacking midfielder coming under radar of clubs in England and Germany. The reality of promoting a bunch of promising scholars into the first team is that it would still take some time for them to integrate and reach the appropriate level so strengthening in the short term from other areas remains a priority.

Targeting up and coming British players like Eberechi Eze and a loan deals with an option to buy, similar to what they did this season with Phillip Mateta are the kind of moves Palace would want to replicate going in the transfer window. However before they can do this, Palace must address its salary problem with the high earners currently not proving their earnings on the pitch. Renegotiating their contracts or moving them on all together could help to balance the books and make the rebuild an easier job.

Take for example Mamadou Sakho, one of the highest earners at the club, who has hardly featured this year because of injuries. It won’t be a bad decision to let him go considering his age and injury history. Similarly Christian Benteke who is on £120,000 per week is an interesting one as he is one of the players who’s contract expires in the summer. The club appeared happy for him to leave in January and indeed held talks with other clubs to sell him but he insisted on staying. Now in better form and scoring once more, talks have progressed between the player and club around a new contract. The two however are separated by quite a bit in terms of what Benteke should be paid with Palace hoping the Belgian striker will stay but on much lesser terms. The potential to turn Mateta’s loan into a permanent signing also brings complications to Benteke’s future at Palace. It may be best for Palace to let the 30 year old striker depart in the long run.

High earners Sahko and Benteke could be allowed to leave to release some wages for future signings

Palace also have an option to permanently sign Michy Batshuayi from Chelsea at the end of May. He has not managed to make any serious impact this season, registering 2 goals and 1 assist in 17 appearances but offers another option if Benteke is to leave. Wages however could be a deciding factor as he is also one of the highest paid players in the club currently on £90,000 a week. Unless he is willing to accept less, it’s more likely that he will probably be returned to his parent club when his loan finishes. .

At the right back position, Nathaniel Clyne, Joel Ward and Martin Kelly are out of contract this summer. With promising youngster Nathan Ferguson returning from injury next season, two of the seniors should be let go in the coming months. Ward has made more starts this season and is on less than half the wages of Clyne which makes the argument for Ward to be selected. However despite earning £80,000 per week, 30 years Clyne who is a year younger than Ward he played well when he’s not been injured and is arguably the better player of the two. Like Benteke, former England player Clyne would likely have to accept reduce wages to stay on. Kelly will definitely be released having failed to make a single appearance this season.

On the other side of the defence, Patrick Van Aanholt has been competing for his spot with the impressive Tyrick Mitchell. The left back still has bits to offer and could be offered an extension but regardless of Patrick’s contract situation, Mitchell is more than ready to make the left back position his own after impressing several times this season. Having spent three seasons at Palace already, Dutch full back Van Aanholt may decide it’s time to move on and has garnered interest from Galatasaray over a free transfer.

Veteran centre backs, Scott Dann and Gary Cahill are running out of time too. With the aim of reducing average age, both of them could be let go. However, Cahill has shown he can still put in impressive shifts and with the possibility of young defenders coming in, his experience and leadership qualities could be useful. There are reports of Palace looking to swoop 19 years old centre back Radu Dragusin on a free transfer after the Romanian has been frozen out of Juventus first team.

Should Palace retain veteran defenders Scott Dann and Gary Cahill? That is one of many questions that the club has to answer this summer

After signing Jack Butland last summer and extending Vicente Guaita’s contract, Palace are likely to let go of reserve keepers, Wayne Hennessey and Stephen Henderson and look to sign a young 3rd choice keeper or promote from its u23 team with Rohan Luthra, Jacob Russell and Oliver Webber all keen to make the step up.

In midfield, James Mcarthy has only 12 appearances this season and is down the pecking behind Riedewald and  Milivojević so it would be surprising if he is given an extension. Andros Townsend has seen less game time this season because of emergence of Eze and the winger told Talksport how his contract situation has affected his performances and Palace are likely to wait till the end of the season before handling contract situations. The club may look to retain his services as he has the ability to change games on his own when in form. James McArthur is likely to be given a new deal having performed consistently for Palace since his arrival in 2014. Jeffrey Schlupp will also be handed new terms in the coming weeks.

Crystal Palace are in a zero-debt position and have managed their finances pretty well in the pandemic. They are plotting a £50 million spending spree in the summer and will try to make the most of that by adding some free transfers and loan deals in the mix. Player markets across Europe are vulnerable, especially Ligue 1 who possess good talent but the French clubs are in a desperate position to raise money and could be preyed on for economical signings.

Whilst the rebuild on the pitch would probably be centred around Zaha, Eze, Riedewald and Mitchell and will start soon, the decision over who is in the dugout come the start of the season is the priority. With Roy Hodgson most likely to end his term, Palace have been linked with Eddie Howe and Patrick Viera for the management role. Both men bring different skillsets and experience to the role but are also in high demand meaning that Palace will have to move quickly to get their man. Regardless of who they hire, the new manager will likely want to bring in new players to suit their style of play hence the urgency to appoint them first. It’s likely to be a summer of transition for Crystal Palace both on and off the pitch. With several moving parts including expiring contracts, heavy expected transfer activity and a change in management, it’s a lot for Palace to manage but if done well, they could use this transition to build something exciting for the future.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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In Pep We Trust – How tactical tweaks turned around Man City’s season

Pep Guardiola’s men are approaching what could be a mesmerizing end to their season. Manchester City, cruising to their 5th Premier League title with 11 points clear on the top of the table, in the semi finals of the Champions league and the finals of the EFL Cup are in cruise control. However it was not this rosy from the start; fragilities in the back line and imbalance in attack led to a shambolic 5-2 home defeat to Leicester in only the second game of the season which was then followed by some cagey draws and less than convincing 1-0 wins. It wasn’t until after the 1-1 draw at the Etihad against West Brom on 15th December, that they turned things around and went on a sensational 21 games winning streak in all competitions that put themselves back in a position to contest for all four titles (EPL, FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League). Their quadruple dreams may have broken by Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final but they still have a lot to play for.

Credit where its due goes to the players, namely a reborn John Stones, possible signing of the year, Ruben Dias, unlikely goal scoring hero Ilkay Gundogan, the creative forces of Kevin De Bruyne and Joao Cancelo to name a few. But, of course, the man most responsible for the remarkable season turnaround is Pep Guardiola. In an interview with BT Sports in March, Guardiola explained the changes that brought around this tranaformation in his team:

“It was the day after West Brom at home when we drew 1-1. We could have won but I went to myself, my staff and friends and said I don’t like the team, I don’t like the way we play. We ran too much, we were not in the position. We ran too much without knowing exactly what we have to do with the ball. Our strength is when we have the ball. And we just came back to the principles, that’s all. So the wingers high and wide, a lot of players in the middle and come back without the ball, run like animals and with the ball, be more calm, play more passes,”

Ilkay Gundogan has been in rich goalscoring form for Manchester City this season

One of the main tactical tweak Guardiola made was to have one of his full-backs play in a midfield position – either Cancelo or Oleksandr Zinchenko. In the build up play, the full-back forms a double pivot with the holding midfielder; this gives defensive solidarity in the midfield and allowed Gundogan to operate higher up and make runs in the box. Once City are in the attacking third, the inverted full-back gets in advance positions to create chances by playing passes through the lines, over the defence and linking up play. It is mostly Joao Cancelo that was used in this role as he has exceptional quality with the ball at his feet. This change also helped City to press with more numbers higher up the pitch.

Early on in the season it looked like De Bruyne was given the whole responsibility of creating openings and opponents were able to deal with that, but later, a better balance was found which still allows him to be the most creative outlet. The benefits of the season defining change can also be seen in player stats; Gundogan is City’s highest goal scorer this season with 16 goals in all competition and Cancelo ranks no. 8 in the Premier League for key passes. Added into this, City has scored the most goals in the Premier League (69) to date but has done so without a recognized goalscorer like Spurs have with Harry Kane or Liverpool has in Mo Salah. Instead the goals are more evenly distributed throughout the team, more so than any other team in the league – Gundogan (12), Sterling (9), Mahrez (9), Jesus (8), Phil Foden (6), De Bruyne (5).

One factor affecting that is Guardiola deploying a false 9 on many occasions, especially against higher quality opponents. Mostly De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva have been used in that position but even then the attacking four operates very fluidly and interchange positions through the game. This causes havoc in the opposition defence and the City players score different types of goals from different positions.

Deploying a false 9 with Bernardo Silva in the role allows space to develop between the centre backs who are stuck between following Silva as he retreats back into midfield or tracking one of the four runners (Mahrez, Sterling, De Bruyne, Gundogan).

One more eye-catching stat is that Man City has only scored one goal from counter attack this season in EPL. Guardiola has regularly talked about his team being more calm and playing more passes which is the likely reason behind this stat. It’s true that most teams sit back deep when playing against City and avoid being caught on the break. But still there have been many instances where City could have hurt a team on the counter but they rather choose to wear the opposition down by playing more passes and dominating the position. Playing more passes is not just their way to attack but defend too. “We control and be organized through the passes, because what makes the team balanced is the ball,” said Guardiola in the post match conference after the UCL 2nd leg against Dortmund.

“It’s not three incredibly huge holding midfielders or physicality, what makes the team have good balance, compact, is what we do. With. The. Ball. Extra passes help everyone be in the right position and when you lose the ball always you are organized, and that is what we have done since day one we arrived but sometimes you need more time to get it.”

In defence, with one full back advancing to midfield, the other one stays back and the two centre backs spread to form a wide back three. This allowed City to play passes from the back, rotate sides and control the tempo of the game. The inverted full back and the defensive midfielder gave more passing options and also protected the back line. This compact organization has made City way less vulnerable to counter-attacks, which was the way to get at them earlier in the season and also large parts of last season. It has worked wonders as they possess the best defence in Europe this season;  City has conceded the least number of goals in EPL (24) and the Champions League (3), level with Chelsea.

The centre back partnership of Dias and Stones has been a revelation for City this season

The resurgence of John Stones and the new signing, Ruben Dias have been crucial for City’s defence, keeping the previously impressive Laporte restricted to only a handful of appearances. The centre back pairing of Stones and Dias have been Pep’s go to for the important games and even when the two players have been paired with someone else, they have performed brilliantly due to the way that they are set up.

One distinctive factor about City has been the heavy rotation. Pep Guardiola has made over 100 changes to his starting lineup in the league this season, well more than any other team. No places, other than Ederson’s and Rodri’s, can be taken for granted. In a press conference in December Pep said:

“It’s not about rest here,” It is about rest when a big clash like a UCL tie is looming but mostly it’s not. Every game I put in the best players, sometimes for the benefit of the team, sometimes because of injuries, but especially the players who play well. It’s not about the players who believe, ‘I deserve to start because I have been here for three or four years’.”

Sterling and Laporte have been the biggest victims of the regular overhauling, but that shows the performance and consistency Pep demands of his players. Rotation has sometimes not worked with the recent loss against Leeds attributed to too many changes. But rotation was necessary ahead of the Champions League 2nd leg game against Borussia Dortmund, the most important game of the season until now. For most of the season, changing the starting 11 has helped in coping with a hectic season and has not been a hindrance on getting the results needed, which is remarkable. It can be said that City possess a deep squad but it’s never easy to change half the starting 11 from the last fixture and keep the performance level high.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Could England Triumph at Euro 2020?

England moved top of their World Cup 2022 qualifying group after registering 3 wins in a week. They beat the lowest ranked international team in San Marino 5-0, then Albania 2-0 before managing a 2-1 win over Poland on the final day of the March international break.

The wins against San Marino and Albania were as easy as they come and indeed they should have beaten Albania by a higher margin. With the next competitive games set to be at the Euros, these two games gave Southgate a chance to explore who would lead his attack with a plethora of talent at his disposal. However the match against Poland was a stark reminded for England fans of the possible mishaps at the back, the pragmatic back 3 is anything but convincing but it is certain to be used against oppositions of higher quality.

England lined up in a 4-2-3-1 system for the three qualifiers and only switched to a reminiscing 3-4-3 for the last five minutes against Poland. Looking into the 4-2-3-1 system, with the double pivot, one defensive midfielder is to stay back at all times and help to build from the back. The other was given the freedom to join attacks from the right side and help create overloads in the wide-area with the extra responsibility of getting back in shape when possession is lost. The attacking midfielder up front shifts to the left side to create overloads and is given the most positional freedom and also the responsibility to create openings.

Maguire celebrates after scoring against Poland

Creating overloads in wide areas is a big part of how they attack with the full-backs pushing up high and the midfielders drifting wide. They then link-up play with wingers to create openings, find space to cross in the box, or attract the opposition defence before switching up play quickly. It also allows them to press up high with high intensity after giving away possession.

Mason Mount shone in the no.10 role in the WC qualifiers and is one of the players who has probably booked his spot in the starting 11 for the Euros. Declan Rice was solid at the no.6 role and is looking a good fit for it, in the absence of Jordan Henderson and was accompanied by either Kalvin Phillips or James Ward Prowse. If Henderson can recover from his groin injury in time he would be taking the second defensive midfielder role as the skipper brings experience and leadership to the side.

The centre back partnership of John Stones and Harry Maguire is looking certain to feature in Euros. Meanwhile Nick Pope was given the chance to be in the net as Pickford missed all three games after sustaining an injury to his oblique abdominal muscle. The Burnley keeper’s vulnerability when playing out from the back was highly visible and that will make it harder for him to take the number 1 spot at the Euros from Pickford, who is more proficient with his feet and also preferred by Southgate.

The England manager’s controversial decision to leave out Trent Alexander-Arnold came as a shock to a lot of fans, but to bring it to context, the Liverpool right-back has not been at his best this season and England possesses top-quality talent at his position. Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James are all competing for that role and bring more diverse and suitable attributes to the table for England; Walker can also play in a back three allowing Southgate to switch systems easily mid-game, Trippier can play on either flank, and Reece James is a pacy upcoming talent himself, who plays with high intensity. It still feels unfair to leave someone of Trent’s quality out and as Southgate said, he could still make it to the Euros if his performances for Liverpool improve. Not to mention, Wan Bissaka has found it hard to get in the England squad due to the four men ahead of him.

Southgate’s decision to leave out Trent Alexander Arnold from the last squad raised a few eyebrows

Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw will be competing for the left-back position unless there is a surprise find in the last few months of the season. If Grealish can make it back to the squad, he will be competing with Rashford and Sterling to play in left-wing and Jadon Sancho could be seen fighting with Foden to play on the right flank. Keeping in mind, Foden, Sterling, and Rashford can play on either side but Southgate has figured out what flank he likes them to see in. Harry Kane in his hybrid of out and out striker and false 9 roles is likely to start every game at the Euros, with Calvert Lewin giving a superb option from the bench.

According to bookmakers England, alongside France are the favorites to win the Euros, but are they really? Well, they are a top-quality team on paper, and Southgate and his men now have valuable cup competition experience. But history tells England performs the best when expectations are low and disappoint when hopes are high. Looking at other big football nations in Europe, new generations of Spain and Germany are highly inconsistent, Netherland looks to have played the wrong card in appointing Frank De Boer as their manager. Italy is re-emerging and could still threaten whilst Belgium and Portugal have vary different points to prove. Not forgetting, Croatia and their new dark horse partner in Turkey who could all pose a significant risk to England’s chances at Euro’s success.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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What now for Euro 2020 as pandemic tightens its grip on Europe

As the months whittle down towards the start of arguably the biggest football tournament of this summer, Euro 2020, tournament plans remains unclear. With less than 100 days to go until kick off, the tournaments organizers, UEFA are scrambling together a feasible plan, with the help of several national governments, to host the cross-country tournament. The usually single or duo hosted event takes an unusual turn this time around with the games spread out over 12 different countries as a way of marking the 60th edition of the tournament and also to reduce the costs associated with hosting. That decision, made nine years ago has come back to haunt UEFA who now face a logistical nightmare during a never ending horrific global pandemic.

Having been postponed a year from its original start date in June 2020, it is almost certain that the tournament will happen this summer. With the resumption of most of the sporting leagues across Europe, UEFA have clarified that the tournament will take place this summer between June 11 – July 11, 2021 and it will be played in multiple cities spread across Europe.

Euros are set to be hosted across 12 host cities namely:

  • Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • Baku (Azerbaijan)
  • Bilbao (Spain)
  • Bucharest (Romania)
  • Budapest (Hungary)
  • Copenhagen (Denmark)
  • Dublin (Republic of Ireland)
  • Glasgow (Scotland)
  • London (England)
  • Munich (Germany)
  • Rome (Italy)
  • Saint Petersburg (Russia)

One of the key questions however is whether fans will be able to attend the games or not. With many of the sporting leagues playing with a very small faction of fans or behind closed doors, it’s likely that UEFA will permit some fans to be in the stadiums when the matches begin but to what level or capacity has still to be determined.

That caution is due to the continued pandemic that still has a tight strangle hold on most of Europe. The leagues have managed to operating successfully due to everyday testing and strict safety protocols to be followed by staff and players alike. But for an international tournament held in numerous cities and countries with high infection numbers, planning for the tournament has taken on a whole new level of complexity.

Current holders Portugal with the trophy in 2016.

With varying degrees of virus infection rates and restrictions, UEFA has had to coordinate with 12 different governments to organize this tournament. Whilst the vaccines are offering hope, the current progress of the vaccinations in the European Union in the first quarter of 2021 is still below the expected estimation primarily due to vaccine producers (AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech) in EU prioritizing export of vaccines under the COVAX initiative. The EU top officials are rallying to curb exports to prioritize the vaccination of the European citizens to stem the tide of the disease.

Over the last two weeks France, Italy, Germany, Poland and Netherlands have seen yet another increase in the Covid-19 cases. This was followed by tightening of the restrictions in these countries which included essential travel and mandatory negative test reports for cross-country travel. UEFA are trying their utmost to include fans in the stadiums at least to fill 50% of the stadium but, they may downsize the venues prioritizing the cities with lower infection rates. The worst-case scenario could mean the games are played behind closed doors, something that would not please UEFA who had grander plans for celebrating the tournaments 60th anniversary.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Is Going Down The Worst Thing For Newcastle? Maybe that’s the plan.

After another woeful performance, this time against Brighton and Newcastles chances of staying in the Premier League took a nose dive. With nine games left, it’s hard to see how they survive especially with Steve Bruce still filling the managers chair. Tactically inept, starved of ideas and with the players body language suggesting they have given up hope of survival, Newcastle under Bruce look like a sinking ship. It’s a sorry state of affairs for the loyal Toon Army who have endured more than most as the season has gone on. The end, we all fear, looks right around the corner and we are perilous to stop it.

Relegation however may not be the worse thing for Newcastle and indeed might be part of the plan as Ashley continues to work behind the scenes on reviving the failed Saudi bid. That bid was stopped by the Premier League’s new ownership test as well as a handful of other instigators who fuelled by their own personal agendas (or indeed paid by someone else’s) kiboshed any chance that Newcastle United had of a better life. That might sound flippant but for all Newcastle fans, the last almost 14 years have been a nightmare under Mike Ashley who decided early on that owning a football club was more for a personal advancement than that of the clubs. The Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bid was far from perfect and indeed didn’t quite sit right in the minds of a lot of Newcastle fans but when you have the opportunity to escape the clutches of a torturer’s cell, you don’t consider if its any worse on the outside.

The Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund failed in its first attempt to buy Newcastle but are rumoured to be waiting in the wings

For now Ashley remains in charge and the club stumbles towards yet another relegation. But this one feels almost different as if it has been engineered that way. It might sound like the ramblings of a drunken Newcastle fan trying to make sense of what is happening but if you would just allow me to explain my thought process, it might not be that insane. So here goes. It’s no secret that Ashley has wanted to sell the club for a long time and indeed has entertained several offers but none met his lofty elevated set price tag. That was until the Saudi’s came along with more than enough money to meet Ashley’s greediness. From that point onwards, Ashley and his band of merry idiots pushed everything towards making that deal happen. Unfortunately a coalition of naysayers that including BeIn Sports, Amnesty International bizarrely, several MP’s likely paid handsomely for their objections and of course the insecure duo of Liverpool FC and Tottenham FC threw blockers up at very convenient intervals in the hopes of derailing the bid. And it worked. It gave the Premier League enough doubt that it sat on its hands for long enough that the Saudi’s walked away.

A furious Mike Ashley, who saw his dream of buying Necker Island and kicking Richard Branson out slowly disappearing, has sought legal advice and challenged the Premier League to justify why it delayed its decision to refuse or approve the Owners and Directors Test’ (‘OADT’) which all new owners need to pass. With the PL not willing to budge on its fence sitting position, it will need to go to the Court of Arbitration which could take many months if not well into next year. That for Ashley is too long. So perhaps he came up with another plan. A plan so mischievous that even Dick Dastardly and Muttley of the Wacky Races would approve. Why fight the Premier League on the takeover when he can push through the take over through the EFL, who are the governing body of the English Championship and the other leagues below. Given the EFL’s previous track record of takeovers (looking at you Nottingham Forest) and their lighter version of the directors test which involves solving a 16 piece jigsaw puzzle and telling them how much you like football, it should be a breeze for Ashley to sell the club.

Footage of a director trying to pass the EFL directors test recently

The challenge however was how to get into the Championship without the fans, the league or anyone else known their dastardly plan. The answer came in the figure of Steve Bruce. Retaining his services as manager and potentially cutting him in on the plan made it almost too easy. Under Bruce, Newcastle would play boring defensive non attacking football. He would throw any notion of tactical changes out of the window and would set the team up so badly it could only really hope to not fail too badly. Relegation would land Ashley, his band of idiots and likely Bruce a very handsome pay off when the revived Saudi bid finally got its approval in the Championship. Ashley would walk away into the sunset with two bulging suitcases full of cash and leave Newcastle under new billionaire owners who would then transform the club into PL challengers within a matter of years, much to the disappointment of Liverpool, Spurs and the Premier League. Far fetched? Maybe. But let’s see what happens if they are relegated. If i’m right, it’s going to be a very interesting and lucrative summer for Newcastle Football Club.

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Newcastle and Fulham face dogfight to stay in Premier League

As we get into the business end of the season, it’s getting tense at the bottom of the English Premier League. The fates of Sheffield United and West Brom are almost sealed and can surely start thinking about their next campaign in the EFL Championship as their ships are well underwater already with 9 games left to play. 10 points separate West Brom and the safe zone whilst Sheff Utd are rooted to the bottom 14 points deep in the drop zone. Southampton and Burnley sit at 14th and 15th spot respectively, with 33 points each and are 7 points clear of the relegation zone. Things would have to go pretty wrong for them and very good for the teams below them to really be threatened with a strong possibility of going down.

A huge win for Brighton against Newcastle on Saturday has given them a 6 point cushion over the relegation zone. They are not completely safe yet but the 3-0 against the relegation rivals would give them a big confidence boost. With the quality of football they play, they should be able to see it through, but they can’t let their main problem resurface again: low conversion rate. On many occasions they have played teams out of the park but not completed their chances, dropping a staggering amount of points on the way as a result.

But it’s the fight between Fulham and Newcastle that could very well go down to the wire. Only 2 points separate them; Fulham sit in 18th place on 26 points, Newcastle in 17th on 28 points. And to make things more exciting Fulham will host Newcastle on the last match day with an anticipated return of fans in the stadiums.

English Premier League table as of March 24th

Fulham has grown to become a much better team and found themselves in the position they are because of a dreadful start to the campaign rather than how they have played recently. As Scott Parker said in the pre-match conference of their game against Leeds, “We are a different team, different animal this time,” reflecting on the reverse fixture, which was way back in September at the start of the season. The London team has shown belief and great fight lately pulling off amazing results with victories against the two Merseyside clubs. February signing Josh Maja has given them a boost upfront and Joachim Andersen and Tosin Adarabioyo have gelled well to give Fulham a solid pair at the back and reduce the influx of goals. All this but they still might go down.

One of their biggest problem this season has been turning draws into a win. After 29 matches, Fulham has played the highest number of draws in the league (11), alongside Brighton. This includes draws against their relegation rivals – 2 goalless draws against Brighton alongside score draws against Newcastle, Sheffield United, and West Brom.

Fulham’s failure to beat the sides in and around them may come back to haunt them.

The football Fulham play is not bad and even worthy of staying in the top flight. They play with high intensity, press high up the pitch, attacking with pace through the channels, and are not afraid to commit men forward. They are an attractive team to watch and the prospect of them staying up and allowing Scott Parker to build the squad further is very exciting for the Fulham fans.

If Fulham are to stay up they would have to show their recently found hunger and belief till the end of the season. After going on a decent run they have lost their last two games and need to get back to winning or even drawing ways soon if they are to takeover Newcastle. The least they could do is stay within touching distance of Newcastle and then give it all against the team, which is not better than them by any means.

Fulham’s Remaining fixtures:

Aston Villa (A), Wolves (H), Arsenal (A), Chelsea (A), Brighton (H), Southampton (A), Man Utd (A), Newcastle (H)

Moving on to Newcastle, despite having a couple of points and a game in hand over Fulham, Newcastle is being given lower odds than Fulham to go out of the top flight, and if you watch their recent performances that makes sense. Magpies fans are being disappointed week in and week out, watching their team play with low intensity while defending deep and playing on counterattack. The tactics might not be the main problem but the fact is that the approach is not working and Steve Bruce has done little to nothing to refresh things up is the main issue.

Injuries to their attacking player have only made things worse. Their top goalscorer as well as highest assist maker, Callum Wilson has missed the 8 league games whilst he recovers from a hamstring injury. In addition, their biggest talent in Allan Saint-Maximin has suffered from multiple injuries, preventing him to get a foothold in the season. There have also been numerous other injuries to key players along the way which has added to Newcastles woes. The good news is that Wilson and Saint-Maximin are both expected to return soon after this current international break.

Newcastle fans protest against manager Steve Bruce following the 3-0 defeat to Brighton.

There have also been problems off the pitch for The Magpies too. Reports of a bust-up between Steve Bruce and Matt Richie followed by reports of Newcastle players being concerned with given too many days off. These issues can be reflected on their performances on the pitch. The race to stay in the Premier League will be intense and such matters can only make things worse.

Newcastle needs to find a way to start getting results soon, as Fulham are breathing down their neck. Their biggest hope is to get a boost from Wilson’s return in April, the centre forward who has scored 10 and created 5 goals in 21 league appearances this season. More than anything, Steve Bruce and the players both need to step up and take responsibility for what’s going on and turn things around before it gets too late.

Newcastle’s Remaining fixtures:

Tottenham (H), Burnley (A), West Ham (H), Liverpool (A), Arsenal (H), Leicester (A), Man City (H), Sheffield Utd (H), Fulham (A)

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Inside Chelsea’s youth development – turning talent into profit one player at a time

In medieval times, children are educated/skilled as apprentices in certain crafts to one day produce skilled craftsmen. But an apprenticeship is only the first step. Once an apprenticeship is completed, the individual leaves on a journey for some years to hone their skills as master-in-training in hopes of one day becoming a master. Individuals in this phase of training and life experience came to be known as “journeymen”.

In modern football, we see journeymen in young academy graduates who have not received the nod for first team football, taking loan opportunities in lower leagues or international leagues to gain playing time and experience. The loan system was seen to be beneficial to both the club and the player with the central idea of player development. The concept was welcomed by fans and association alike to train more elite talent for both club and country. But, in the recent decade, we have seen a change in the ethos of the loan system with clubs abusing and monetizing from the system.

Fans and analysts alike will point to Chelsea F.C. and their system of “youth development” as the chief contributor to this change but, they would not be completely right. Yes, it is true Chelsea found success through buying players, they have a notorious loaning system and more recently were fined and handed a transfer ban for their youth recruitment strategies. Although, today they are not only club who adopt such a system, they have certainly paved the way for such practices. 

Roman-Era

Chelsea was taken over by Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich in 2003 which brought forth riches and a new identity to the club. In the upcoming years, Chelsea who were formerly, a mid table club were now among the elites of the premier league with superstar players recruited through transfers winning multiple league and cup titles. But, this model of splurging cash was never a long-term solution of success with the introduction of Financial Fair Play rules (FFP) in 2009. But, with the globalization of football and more revenue incoming from TV deals and sponsorships, success is expected spontaneously and in perpetuity. So, for years the club remained on the edge of creating financial controversy. So, they established reformation of their academy and dedicated a team of scouts, coaches and medical staff to take care of the recruits.

Talent Farming

The first generation of graduates from the academy provided several promising recruits like Ryan Bertrand, Gael Kakuta, Josh McEacharan and Patrick Van Aanholt. But these recruits were unable to break into a first team filled with talented cast the likes of Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. Between 2007-2011, Chelsea sacked 4 managers in hopes to compete with Manchester United who themselves lost Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009. This meant the young graduates could not convince the new managers, whose priorities were always immediate success.

With the academy recruits unable to convince the manager and with the current squad playing past their prime, Chelsea saw more opportunity and increased their scouting methods and started to pickup talent from abroad with potential to develop and in turn also create a more global identity to the club. Now came the next set of youths: Lucas Piazon, Kevin De Bruyne, Oriol Romeu, Patrick Bamford, Romelu Lukaku, Thorgan Hazard, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake, Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen, Victor Moses, Christian Atsu etc. each showing potential to breakout. 

With the new generation of talent, Chelsea streamlined their “development” process to generate a path for these talents to first team. The club established a separate division to handle player development which included, a director, a set of coaches and medical staff. The process starts with buying players for a low fee, followed by initial assessment after which a player may be placed in the reserves or on the loan list. If a player is on the loan list, they are initially sent to a soft testing grounds (weak leagues with low expectations) to get some playing time. Chelsea have sent players to Vitesse Arnhem (a club owned by Roman Abramovich’s Friend), a city with a population of about 100,000. The loans are mostly for a year but, can sometimes be cancelled midway if a player is unable to adapt to the league. The financial deals are worked out such that a part or most of the players salary is covered. The coaches or director will personally visit the players at the loaned clubs and assess their development. Based on the assessment they may decide to allow the player to finish the loan deal or cancel it and move them elsewhere to suit their development needs.  

At the end of the year, the team analyses the data and decide to take one of three routes: Retain the player, Sell the player (if the market demand was present) or move them to a more challenging testing spot for further development. This started an eternal cycle of loan moves for young players who report to cobham facility at the start of the year and move on to the next loan immediately.

Monetization

Success in life sometimes comes down to luck. Clubs may not always come across a player like Messi or Ronaldo immediately. Sometimes, talent is seen immediately, sometimes it only shows up later in life or in the eyes of another. Case in point, Chelsea have sold some talented players from their academy when they do no feel this player can reach a certain potential. So, they sold them after a few years of recruitment when their market value is at its peak as they cannot guarantee playing time with the club.

Some examples include, Romelu Lukaku, Thorgan Hazard, Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Ryan Bertrand to name a few who were unable to convince the manager for regular football or who were not satisfied with the club’s communication. The club made dividends on their initial investment of these players when their market value and demand was high (in most cases selling them to the clubs where they were loaned).

Success stories

When all is said and done, this system has been in place since 2012. At one point, the club sent as many as 40 players on loan. So, what is the verdict? Was this system truly developed for “player development” or simply a money mongering strategy. What is there to show to the fans, analysts and association that their system is meant for youth development and not a monetization project.  

Andreas Christensen: The lanky danish Centre-back joined Chelsea at the end of André Villas-Boas tenure in 2012 with high expectations. After making his debut under Jose Mourinho in 2013, he spent two successive loan spells at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Chelsea immediately saw his value and integrated into the first team in 2015 as the touted heir to John Terry.

Thibaut Courtois: Similar to Christensen, the Belgium prodigy arrived at Stamford bridge in 2011 and was immediately sent on a three-year loan to Atletico Madrid where he won the Europa league, La-Liga (breaking a Spanish deadlock held by Barcelona/Real Madrid) and made it to the Champions league final in 2014. Chelsea immediately integrated the heir apparent to Petr Cech as the starting goalkeeper in 2014.

Kurt Zouma: The French Centre-back was signed from Saint-Etienne in 2014 but, remained on loan for a year at the former club. After making his Chelsea debut in 2015, he was sparsely involved in first team action. After successive loan spells at Stoke City and Everton, he is lauded as the future of the Chelsea’s backline alongside Christensen.

Kurt Zouma is one of several players to be bought by the club and developed into first team players (Image from Tumblr)

Mason Mount: The Englishman rose through Chelsea’s youth academy in 2017, spent two successive loan spells at farm club, Vitesse Arnhem and Derby county, where he played under Frank Lampard. When incoming manger Frank Lampard took the helm at Chelsea in 2019, he immediately integrated the young prodigy into the team. Then 20-year-old was an instant success and remains a key figure in the team till date despite the exit of the golden boy manager.

Undecided: Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Reece James. Chelsea’s transfer ban in 2019 along with the departure of superstar Eden Hazard meant the club were suddenly left vulnerable in the premier league. Incoming manager Frank Lampard was faced with a daunting task and decided to take a leap in faith with the many talent young reserves in his squad. With the exception of Loftus Cheek who departed for Fulham, the above-mentioned players featured heavily in Lampard’s squad rotation and feature in Thomas Tuchels now.

The Others

No system is perfect. More often than not, there are times when someone can get overlooked due to injuries, error in judgment or worst of all human greed. We will look at a few cases (not all) where Chelsea’s system failed the players and jeopardized their careers.

Tomas Kalas & Lucas Piazon: The Czech centre-Back and Brazilian winger arrived in London in 2010 and 2011 respectively during the dawn of Chelsea’s “youth development” stratagem. They both spent their initial testing grounds loans at Vitesse Arnhem followed by loans in Germany and in the English Championship. In total, they spent 7 loan spells each with Piazon making one start for Chelsea and Kalas played 2 games. Kalas’s Chelsea career may only be remembered for his debut at Anfield against Liverpool in 2014 where Steven Gerrard let the league title “slip” away whilst Piazon has no such privilege. Their market value was highest during their loan spell at Fulham F.C. in 2016-2017 and 2017- 2018 campaign where their stays overlapped and they found success helping the club promotion to the Premier League at the end of the 2017-2018 campaign narrowly missing out promotion the previous year. When they reported to the Chelsea at the end of their loan spell in 2018, they were expecting an offer from Fulham to start their careers but, they received no information from the club. In a recent interview with a Czech chat show on his role at Chelsea, Kalas said “I am a player for training sessions. If they need a cone, they put me there instead”. After another loan spell, Kalas was eventually sold to Bristol City for a profit whilst, Piazon was let go in summer 2021. 

Why were these two talented young players career’s derailed by Chelsea’s system. Was it matter of oversight? Surely, it is not something as simple as that. We may never know the answer at least that was Piazon’s opinion in a recent interview with Sky-sports.

FIFA Loan Rule Amendment

FIFA has also taken notice to the change in the trend of player loan system and decided to act on curb such practices. According to the new rules, starting from the upcoming season (2021-2022), clubs are allowed only 8 transfers in and eight transfers out per season (and not more than three transfers between clubs) with the number set to reduce to 6 players from the 2022-2023 season.

Why has FIFA decided to act now?

Whilst, managers and analysts alike scorned Chelsea’s model of “player development”, the system was not violating any rules. Other Clubs now started to adopt this system, the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, RB Leipzig, Atlanta, Juventus, Inter Milan, Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers adopted a similar model. Manchester City and RB Leipzig also setup a feeder clubs in Girona F.C. (City own 47% shares in Girona) and RB Salzburg respectively. The model was working and Clubs now had a way to avoid FFP rules and also fill the Home-grown player quota. But the situation got out of control as now clubs were sending an average of 30 players on loans. Although, in my opinion the nail in the coffin for FIFA’s involvement may have been the transfer of high-profile players like Kylian Mbappe and Alvaro Morata who initially moved on loan to their future clubs with the transfer fee following the next fiscal season thus, satisfying FFP rules.

At the end of the day, football is a business and clubs and fans seek success which cannot come without drastic measures in certain cases. Luck plays a large part in a world filled with several talented players. FIFA exists to maintain the integrity of the game and enact policies to support the players.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Do Fans still feel close with their club?

The 21st of February, 2021 marked the anniversary of the first reported cases of Covid-19 in each country across Europe which initiated an excruciating period of lockdown and social distancing. This news came as an especially hard pill to swallow for football fans because it meant an immediate halt on all professional sporting activities; no more fans at stadiums, likely no Euro 2020 and Liverpool fans couldn’t rejoice their long awaited and dominant premier league trophy win. With no clear directive on the timeline of containment of this global pandemic, sporting authorities were starting to bleed cash. Smaller clubs were on the verge of bankruptcy while, larger clubs had to make adjustment to the salaries. Even Barcelona FC had to make promises to players to pay their salaries at later date with some interest during this stagnant revenue period.

Messi and co agreed to a 70% pay cut durning the pandemic but not without conditions attached

After months of deliberation, football authorities started to come up with the best solutions to bring back sporting activities despite the turbulent conditions. Bundesliga was the first league to be back up and running, the Deutsche Fußball liga (DFL) governing body set up the idea of a bubble with daily testing of players and staff along with clear mandates to be followed during the season. This framework worked out very well, the season was restarted albeit some hiccups on the way due to human error.

Some clubs across Europe also started experimented allowing fans into the stadium last season. The Bundesliga allowed 20% of stadium capacity in cities like Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Bremen but, due to varied infection rates Munich and Berlin were not granted such privileges. Meanwhile in France and Italy, about 1000 fans were allowed during game day but, the lawmakers and the big leagues are still not certain the fans may completely return this season before the vaccine rollout (2020-2021).

Fans in Germany watch a Bundesliga match

Considering all these factors, another big question remains: How do the fans feel about this new epoch in football? It certainly can’t be fun watching your favorite clubs and players on the telly all the time, I mean you can’t even watch the game in a sports bar with your friends given the restrictions. The ambience at the stadium with the ever-passionate banner groups behind the goalposts banging the instruments, the ultras occupying the east and west stands singing songs and shouting those occasional insults and the global fans who come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of their stars makes every game that much more exciting.

Every season, the fans are also eager to look forward to the new additions that will improve their clubs. The top 5 leagues in Europe invested a total of £3 billion in the summer 2020 despite the drop in revenue, in comparison the previous transfer window saw £5.25 billion in investment. Fans are always critical of their club’s decision making, making their feelings known during games and most of the times the clubs listen to them as the fans are the significant make up of the club (as well as media).

Case in point, Chelsea Fans who were excited for the 2020-2021 season after their club invest upwards of £200 million in young talent with immense potential. The team which barely survived the top four finish last season under the tutelage of a Chelsea legend now had the look of a dynasty. After a phenomenal start to the season followed a string of bad losses and Chelsea fired their golden boy manager, Frank Lampard. This was a decision which can have repercussions on the minds of the fans about a club who refuse to give time to their manager, who are known for their revolving managerial door, who have now fired yet another manager (and a club legend no less).

Although, the owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich, personally wrote a letter to the fans about the difficult decision to sack Lampard. London is home to many great football clubs. This decision in the current climate can create unease in the psychology of the fans and their outlook towards the club. Along with the fact that Manchester United’s decision to give Ole Gunnar Solskjær time to turn things around for the club despite the early exit from the champions league, a decision which is now bearing fruit could influence the fans.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

An Apology to David Moyes

We all owe David Moyes an apology. And by we, I mean anyone who ever doubted his abilities as a manager or took pleasure by scoffing at his failures. I put myself in that category, not necessarily to the same degree as some others but I did publicly question whether he “found his level” at Everton after failing at United. For that I apologize and so should everyone else. Under Moyes, West Ham are revitalized, performing well and sitting comfortably in the top half of the Premier League. The project is far from completion, there is a lot of work still to be done but it’s on the right path. And Moyes should be credited for that change.

Moyes never doubted his abilities nor his “level”. He knew deep down that he was a good manager, but he fell foul to something that brings down a lot of managers – circumstance. In the eight years since leaving Everton, Moyes has been a victim of circumstance on more than a few occasions which has rapidly tarnished the reputation he built for himself first at Deepdale (Preston NE) then at Goodison Park.

Everton manager David Moyes celebrates on the touchline after Leon Osman (not pictured) scores his side’s second goal of the game

It started with a dream move to Manchester United as the chosen successor to Sir Alex Ferguson. On the surface, the move made a lot of sense. Moyes had consistently overperformed with the financially strapped Everton, relying heavily on his coaching and man management skills to get the best out of his sub-par squads as opposed to buying success through the transfer market. Moving to the more affluent Manchester United; a club that can attract the best talents in the game, should have given him the opportunity to build something special but circumstances beyond his control would prevent him from ultimately being successful.

In truth, Moyes inherited a mess from Sir Alex. It’s unlikely that the latter did that deliberately, but he certainly knew that he wasn’t handing over the club set for success. Indeed, Sir Alex had meant to retire two years previously according to several reports but was persuaded to stay on. In those two years the squad hadn’t improve significantly with only Ashley Young, Robin Van Persie and a very inexperienced David De Gea arriving but it did age badly. By the time Moyes stepped into Old Trafford, most of the key members of the first team were on the wrong side of 30. Ferdinand, Vidic, Giggs, Evra were all coming towards the end of their careers whilst Berbatov had moved on and the influential duo of Van Der Sar and Scholes retired. The squad Moyes inherited was unbalanced, over paid and tired. Efforts were made to correct this but the inefficiencies of Edward Woodward in the transfer market were plain to see as United missed out on target after target. Only Mauroune Fellaini would arrive that summer; hardly a transformational player even at his best.

Fellaini’s arrival did little to help Moyes chances of success at Old Trafford

Granted the expectation place on Moyes to live up to Ferguson played a significant role in his downfall but in truth it only added to the problems he inherited when he started. Moyes was always seen as Ferguson’s choice, not the fans first choice nor even the clubs who would have preferred a more blockbuster name. In the end, the mountain proved too steep for Moyes to conquer and he fell hard less than 10 months into his six-year deal. It’s only now with hindsight that we can look back and understand that his failure was not necessarily of his own doing. Bigger name managers like Van Gaal and Mourinho have come and gone at Old Trafford without failing to conquer the same mountain.

Burned badly by the United experience, Moyes moved to Spain to join Real Sociedad having been sold the vision of the club by president Jokin Aperribay only to find that what he was buying into was not what was expected. Circumstances and expectations of what Moyes could deliver changed rapidly during his first six months in charge. Gone was the understanding by the Scot that he would be afforded time to remould and reprogram the squad in his vision and in its place was unrealistic ambitions including challenging for honours right away. Even if Moyes was afforded more time to craft something from nothing, Aperribay’s delusions of grandeur would have crippled his chances before long. The axe fell almost a year to the day of his arrival.

Moyes revealed as the new Real Sociedad manager alongside club President Jokin Aperribay (centre)

Returning to the UK was never going to be easy especially with his spell at United still fresh in the mind and now a secondary “failure” in Spain with Sociedad. Moyes looked for a redemption project, somewhere without high expectations or a generous war chest to bankroll massive change. He needed a club that needed him and his ability to get the best out of its existing players. Sunderland appeared to be that challenge having spent the better part of the previous five seasons fighting tooth and nail to save themselves from Premier League relegation. Moyes presumably expected to have to put out a few fires at Sunderland but I don’t think he expected to walk into the entire house engulfed in flames. Anyone who watched a single episode of Netflix’s ” Sunderland Til i Die” documentary will know exactly what i mean. Two points from the first ten games told the story of a squad bereaved of confidence, lacking quality and full of overpaid disengaged footballers. With little money to overhaul the squad, Moyes struggled to turn things around and paid the price with a costly relegation, his first in management. Questions were asked over who he did bring in – namely the £20m spent on Papy Djilobodji and Didier Ndong who failed to add anything significantly to the troubled squad but it mattered little in the grander scheme of things.

Licking his wounds, Moyes moved to West Ham to help steer them away from relegation but that was not good enough for the Chuckle Brothers (David Gold and David Sullivan) who had their eyes on a more marquee manager in Manuel Pellegrini. Moyes watched in disgust as the owners ran out the clock on his 6-month deal in favour of the Chilean. It took them 19 months to realize the error of their ways and reappoint Moyes after Pellegrini burned through a small fortune only to deliver zero progress. Tails between their legs, Moyes was given an 18 month contract this time and more importantly control to put things right at the London Stadium.

West Ham are transformed under Moyes this season, currently sitting in 6th place

This season, West Ham have been transformed under Moyes propelling them into 6th place in the table (at the time of writing). The changes he has implemented are apparent. Defensively West Ham under Moyes are more compact and disciplined than before with the towering Angelo Ogbonna marshalling the backline. Clever acquisitions in the midfield, namely Sourek and Bowen offer more attacking threat at pace allowing for a better turnover of the ball whilst the more defensively minded Declan Rice prowls in front of the back four. Set pieces have been worked on extensively on the training field both defensively and offensively leading to less goals conceded and more scored at the other end. All in all West Ham are a difficult side to face which has translated into their current league position.

Moyes may have finally found his club and now has a chance to rebuild that somewhat damaged reputation. It’s been a long and treacherous road for the Scot who remained confident, at least externally, about where he belonged and what he brought to the table. The moral lesson for us all should be to not jump to quick conclusions and instead look at the bigger picture. Perhaps if we had all done that back in 2017, Moyes wouldn’t have been put through the ringer as much as he was following his United exit. Maybe indeed he would have bounced back quicker if we had supported him rather than tearing him down. That’s our mistake, our misgivings, our moment of shame. For that alone, we should collectively say “Sorry David”.

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Has the FA Cup lost its magic?

Once considered the most prestigious of cup competitions, the Football Association Challenge Cup, better known as the FA Cup may be starting to lose its appeal. As the oldest national football competition in the world, it has build itself a very high reputation globally. That said, there are those who are questioning whether this competition is still as important as it has been historically or whether the magic and significance of this competition been lost over time?

Current holders Arsenal with the FA Cup.

The beauty of the FA Cup is that it gives an opportunity to teams of all levels to compete for a major trophy with over 700 teams entering annually. Generally teams based in the highest tiers of English football don’t enter the competition until the 3rd round, months after it began with the preliminary rounds featuring the non league sides and lower divisional teams. Reaching the FA Cup final and indeed winning it was once considered a must for most of the top tier sides, especially those that feature in the Premier League. But it’s now often viewed as a hinderance to their league ambitions whether that be competing for European places or simply surviving against the drop.

Whilst it could be argued that the FA cup is has lost some of its significance for the larger clubs, for the smaller clubs it remains a massive competition and in a lot of cases helps many of them to protect the future of their club. This is due to the prize money per round and the revenue potential from attendance gates (obviously not right now due to COVID-19 and fan restrictions) which can be significant enough to help keep a struggling club running, especially if they come up against a high reputation side e.g. a Premier League team. This was the situation with Marine FC this year. Having pocketed only £1,444 in prize money after beating North West Counties League side Barnoldswick Town in the qualifying rounds, Marine reach round 3 of the competition and were drawn against Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur at home. Despite losing the game 5-0, Marine netted over £75,000 which to the club was a ‘godsend’ allowing them to fund the club for a significant period of time beyond that game. As well as due to the money side and TV payment it can allow smaller teams to get their name out on a national scale and acquire/attract more fans for the club especially locals who may not have supported local previously.

Marine FC vs Tottenham Hotspur game on the 10th January 2021

It is a certainty that the FA Cup is still a very important competition within the English Football system, especially for lower league teams. That said, the reputation of the cup has definitely stunted to some extent with the decreased interest of the nations top sides. Thats not to say that the Premier League clubs have written off the tournament completely. To most, they still focus on this competition despite its drawbacks but adopt a different approach using it as a way to rotate their squad as seen by José Mourinho’s Tottenham side versus Marine FC which was a combination of first team/reserve players as well as some youth.

“The cup run has been a lifesaver for us financially for where we are in non-league.”

Marine FC Manager Neil Young about their FA Cup run, Jan 2021.

They do this to ensure the key players within their squad are rested for other competitions such as the league or in Europe but also to give a run out to those fringe players in the squad or blood youngsters into the first team. This helps to keep the entire squad happy as well as allowing the manager to test or try out new tactics. In certain cases, the cup can be used as a distraction from a poor league campaign and to boost morale and confidence. Wigan in 2013 are a great example of this. Struggling badly in the Premier League, Wigan focused on the FA Cup as a way of keeping the players together and morale high. They surprised many with their unlikely run to the final which they won with a late goal against favourites Manchester City. The FA Cup win came only three days before their final game of the season in the League which despite an uptake in form resulted in Wigan being relegated.

Post by Samuel Cox, Back Of The Net contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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PSG gamble on Pochettino. But will it pay off for them?

It is fairly recent news that famed football manager Mauricio Pochettino has taken the helm as the head coach of Paris Saint-Germain, also known as PSG. Although there are many questions surrounding this appointment,  the key question to be asked is whether Pochettino’s high press, teamwork and unit based tactics be a good fit with this PSG side or will its main players such as Mbappe and Neymar struggle to adapt into his playing style? With only 12 days since his appointment, its too early to answer this question but early indications are promising with PSG have played 3 games drawing the first against Saint-Étienne in a somewhat lacklustre performance, a somewhat more appealing 3-0 win against Brest who sit in a mid-table 11th and Pochettino’s first trophy in charge lifting the Trophee des Champions by beating Marseille 2-1 yesterday. 

While Pochettino’s first game may have seemed like a poor result and performance from the outside looking in, if you look into the game analytically and especially through video analysis you can see signs of Mauricio’s plan coming into place. You can see this through the transition from a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation to the 3-1-5-1 formation that brings in a diamond shape at the back with the defensive midfielder key in allowing a quick build-up and counter-attacking phase of play to take place. Even though this may have not worked in the first game, it was a promising sign of things to come.  In his second game in charge against Brest, there was more proof that it does work and that there may be a bright future ahead for PSG. This should allow them to continue their recent dominance of the French football league system and maybe even beyond this with success in European competitions a priority.

With one of the two centre backs moving into a defensive midfielder role when PSG have the ball, it offers more to the attack.

Key to Pochettino long term success at the club is that has to develop the already brilliant and deep PSG squad that he has at his disposal, as well as to make additions that will be able to fit into his tactics and ethos. This  should ensure that he has a hard working, high-pressing well-oiled machine that will be able to use his tactics as well as their individual flair to become the dominant team in any given match. Not just domestically in France but also continentally within Europe. It is well known that ‘Poch’ as he is affectionately known by many football fans, is a successful, versatile and technical manager with one of his greater achievements being Tottenham’s 2018-2019 UEFA Champions League’s run to the final in which they were runners up to fellow Premier League giants Liverpool FC.

“I am really happy and honored to become the new coach of Paris Saint-Germain. I would like to thank the Club’s management for the trust they have placed in me. As you know, this club has always held a special place in my heart. I have wonderful memories, especially of the unique atmosphere of the Parc des Princes. This team has fantastic potential and my staff and I will do everything we can to get the best for PSG in all competitions.

Mauricio Pochettino on becoming head coach of PSG, Jan 2021.

It seems that Mauricio has a plan for PSG and as an ex-player and a person highly respected by everyone involved within PSG (whether its a player, coach or fan), he is sure to be given the best chance execute against his plan. It is extremely likely that all the players will be listening and following his orders with a laser focus and that this will be a project and something for everyone to believe in. This could make an already brilliant and dominant club become an even bigger, and by the sounds of Pochettino’s plan; powerhouse of European football and an extraordinary dominant side for many, many years to come.

But for now we will just have to wait and see how the partnership of PSG and their new coach Mauricio Pochettino works. It will be very interesting to see; and all football fans will be sure to keep a keen eye on his work and success with the club. Especially fans of Tottenham, many who were and still are of the belief that he is a brilliant manager and should have been more time at the club primarily due to the improvements and forward strides he made while manager.  PSG are a completely different club though, and due to this they are a very tough club to manage because of their focus on success, both nationally and domestically. They aim to be a world class side at all times and anything less than that is unacceptable. We will see if Mauricio has what it takes or if he falls foul to the early axe and the tough life of a manager into today’s football industry. It will also be interesting to see what signings are going to be made for the club under new management. With the start of the January transfer window, this will be a good opportunity to gain insight into Pochettino’s intent and we are hoping to see some exciting and unexpected signings for PSG before February 1st 2021 when the window closes.

Post by Samuel Cox, Back Of The Net contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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Arteta’s Troubles Mount As Arsenal Continue To Slide

Arsenal’s far from perfect start to the season is turning into a nightmare with Mikel Arteta’s side languishing in 15th place with no win in their last seven games. Heading into Christmas, Arsenal find themselves in unfamiliar territory, starring down the barrel of a relegation dog fight rather than a run at the European places. The pressure is mounting on Arteta to find solutions to address the poor results and kick start the Gunners season yet all the signs appear to indicate that it’s an impossible task.

Despite a positive end to last season beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final and a strong showing in this season’s Community Shield, winning over Liverpool thanks to a penalty shoot out, Arsenal have failed to find first gear in the opening quarter of the season. The stats tell half the story – 14 games, 14 points, 12 goals scored, 18 conceded, only 3 clean sheets. But the other half of the story is written across the face of Arteta who stands on the sidelines in disbelief of what he is seeing. Despite his own promise to change the energy and the culture at the club, this recent run shows that neither have been changed which undermines anything that Arteta is looking to achieve.

If you don’t have the right culture, in the difficult moments, the tree is going to shake, so my job is to convince everybody that this is how we are going to live, and if you are going to be part of this organisation it has to be in these terms and in this way. And after that, we can talk about other things.”

Mikel Arteta’s first Arsenal press conference as head coach, Dec 2019.

Part of the strategy to change the energy and the culture was to bring in players who aligned to Arteta’s thinking and embraced change whilst jettisoning those in the current squad that didn’t. This summer, Arsenal spent heavily in the market with mixed results. Defenders Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari had their loan moves made permanent, whilst Runar Alex Runarsson arrived as goalkeeper cover following the sale of the impressive Emilio Martinez to Aston Villa. Of the three, only Soares has made an appearance this season and even then that has been limited to a single occasion. Brazilian centre back Gabriel came in from Lille for €26m, as did fellow Brazilian Willian from Chelsea (albeit on a free) and both have played frequently but not to the same levels that attracted Arsenal to them in the first place. Finally the biggest outlay was for midfielder Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid for a whopping €50m but injuries have limited his time on the field to a handful of times.

All six are not bad acquisitions, far from it nor should they be judged fully this early on in their time at the club. But they all fail to really inspire the type of change needed at Arsenal to move the club to the next level. Gabriel is a tough defender with superb close control and passing range but his inability to command the defence like a Virgil Van Dijk or bark orders like a Tony Adams of old, is telling. Willian demonstrates skill and mastery which entertains the fans but he doesn’ t lead by grabbing the game by its throat and pushing it Arsenal’s way. Partey may be more of the type of character Arteta needs on the field but he needs to get on it regularly for Arsenal fans to see if he is. The club lacks leaders like a Kevin De Bruyne or a Jordan Henderson who show up each week and make their presence felt, albeit in different ways. Established first team players David Luiz, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Granit Xhaka should be driving the team forward yet so far no ones has stepped up this season to do so on a regular basis.

Partey and Gabriel have been good signings but failed to help shift the culture or raise the energy in games.

Added into this, the energy on the field is dramatically lacking with key players often caught walking or not looking to make the lung bursting runs needed to get into goal scoring opportunities. Pepe, who arrived to much hype last season for a mouth watering €80m looks like a passenger in most games, whilst Dani Ceballos who came in from Real Madrid runs without purpose or vision. That lack of energy in the midfield is having a knock on affect upfront with the usually prolific duo of Aubameyang and Lacazette feeding off lose balls and scraps resulting in only 6 goals between them and a 1 goal in every 4 games ratio. The energy in games is not there with only a few players, notably young Kieran Tierney showing desire and drive both in possession and without it.

Building a squad around your own vision takes time, something that Arteta simply hasn’t had enough off having only just celebrated his 1st full year in charge. But the club isn’t helping itself by failing to offload players who are upsetting the apple cart. Both Mezut Ozil and Sokratis Papastathopoulos have been excluded from Arteta’s 25 man EPL squad yet remain the club on a combined £442,000 per week. Over the past 14 weeks since the start of the season, that amounts to just under £7m in wages for players that aren’t being used nor moved along. Other problems have been pushed out on loan or resolved by handing them bumper new contracts but yet the culture remains the same. Despite Arteta’s efforts to pull the team together and push it towards a common goal, they remain divided and individualistic. January’s transfer window offers an opportunity to Arteta to once again address the culture at the club and make the changes needed to be successful under his vision. Whether he gets the time to do so, is a different story.

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One on One with: Craig Brown (Part 1)

Thursday 13th November 2020 will be a date fondly remembered by most Scotland fans as it was the day that 22 years of hurt and disappointment came to an abrupt end. Having failed to qualify for any major international tournament since 1998, Scotland managed to beat Serbia in the final of the Nations League to secure their place at the European Championships next summer. The magnitude of this achievement and what it means to Scottish fans is hard to summarize. But if there was ever a man who could explain the significance of it, it would be the man who guided Scotland to its last major tournament, Mr. Craig Brown.

Brown managed Scotland for eight years, guiding them to both Euro 1996 in England and the 1998 World Cup in France where we played in the opening game against then holders Brazil. Those squads he built included Scottish icons like Colin Hendry, Gary McAllister, John Collins, Andy Goram, Jim Leighton, Paul Lambert and Ally McCoist and they sparked belief that not only would we qualify for tournaments but we would be able to compete as well. Under Brown, Scotland were well drilled, difficult to break down (with one of the meanest defences in world football) and fun to watch as a Scotland fan (albeit perhaps not against Morocco). It was a testament to Brown’s abilities as a manager that he continued to improve the side over his long reign as boss (over 70 international fixtures which is still a record today) and motivate them to compete as a unit rather than a collection of individuals with the common goal of qualifying for major tournaments.

Besides Scotland, Craig had a long career as a manager both in Scotland and England with spells at Clyde, Preston North End, Motherwell and Aberdeen. We chatted with Craig recently in what turned out to be one of the most interesting and fascinating interviews that we have ever done, so much so that we have split it into two parts! We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did!

Back Of The Net: Most fans remember you for your time as a manager but as a player starting out back in 1957 you were considered a hot prospect for the future. Unfortunately, a series of knee injuries would hold back your progression as a player. You did however play under some incredible managers like Scot Symon, who guided Rangers to six league titles and two Cup Winners Cup finals and Bob Shankly who took Dundee to the Division One Championship as well as to the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1963. What influence did these men have on your career and did they have any impact in you eventually becoming a manager?

Craig Brown: As a youngster brought up in Hamilton, I played most of my football for the school team, Hamilton Academy but I also played for Kilmarnock Amateurs U 18 team. I was doing well and was selected for the Scottish Schoolboys in 1956 with the late, great Billy McNeill (who was at Our Lady’s High School in Motherwell,) in the team. The following year I still was of age, and I captained the team which included Alex Ferguson of Govan High School.  We beat England 3-0 at Celtic Park in my first game but lost 4-3 at Dulwich Hamlet the next year.  

I signed from school for Rangers FC and my ability, or lack of it, meant that I never played in the first team.  I was sent for a season for experience to Coltness United Juniors where I played well enough to be included in the Scotland Junior squad.  When ‘called up’ to Ibrox I had 18 months in the reserves but never threatened the two first team guys in my left-half position, Billy Stevenson, who was transferred to Liverpool, and the unconventional Jim Baxter. My lame excuse for my ineffectual performance at Ibrox was the knee injury I sustained which later required 3 operations, and a full replacement eventually. 

Brown signs for Rangers in July, 1958.

The manager of Rangers was Mr. Scott Symon.  You’ll notice I instinctively called him “Mr.”. That was quite normal sixty years ago whereas now “Boss” or “Gaffer” is the nomenclature used.  He was not a training ground coaching manager, but he was a thorough gentleman who commanded great respect.  The best adjective I’d use to describe him is ‘dignified’ and just a little distant from the younger players.  If he unconsciously influenced my career it would have been to confirm that it is no fault to be courteous and that kindness should never be mistaken for softness. 

BOTN: And what about Bob Shankly? That move to Dundee seemed to work for you as a player.

I went on a loan deal to Dundee at a time when loans were not fashionable and after 6 months was transferred outright to Dens Park where the manager was one of the famous Shankly brothers, the elder one, Bob. I did reasonably well there, well enough to earn a medal in 1962 when Dundee won the Scottish Championship using only 15 players in the process at a time when substitutes weren’t in vogue. Bob Shankly, like is brother, Bill, was a big influence on my career, but to copy his management style would be impossible.  He was inimitable.  He possessed a great football brain and a wonderful Ayrshire turn of phrase.  He never called me Craig. It always exalted me to the dirty by “Christ Craig”! Even after a good game he’d say, “Christ Craig, that wisney too bad today, son!” Describing an opponent, he’d say, “He tossed up with a sparrow for legs.  And the sparrow won.  So, take him from the knee doon, as one from eleven is ten!” I could never really use Bob Shankly as a role model as he was a one off, incomparable, but he had the admirable quality of honesty without which I deduced you cannot survive in the cut-throat world of professional football. These two managers I could never emulate but just hope some of their attributes lingered with me.

Brown jumping with teammate and goalkeeper Pat Liney to stop a Celtic attack at Celtic Park, 1962.

BOTN: You got your first taste of management as assistant manager of Motherwell in 1974 before taking over as manager of Clyde in 1977, albeit on a part time basis whilst still working as a primary school teacher. You had ten successful years with The Bully Wee, guiding them to the Second Division title in your first year in charge. What did you learn about management during those years that would help you as your career progressed?

CB: When my indifferent playing career ended prematurely, I was keen to use my SFA coaching qualification which I had taken while a pro player, latterly at Falkirk F C, where I experienced 3 managers, Alec McCrae, Sammy Kean and a former Scotland boss, John Prentice. Again, I had the opportunity to play under very different styles of leadership and, hopefully, learned a few does and don’ts along the way. Also, the team trainer was a man who did well managing Scotland, the legendary Willie Ormond.

Among those instructing and attending the superb SFA coaching courses were luminaries of Scottish football, men like Jimmy Bonthrone, Dick Campbell, Frank Coulston, Alex Ferguson, John Hagart, Archie Knox, Jim Leishman, Ross Mathie, Andy Roxburgh, Jocky Scott, Alex Smith, Walter Smith, and the three McLean brothers, Willie, Jim and Tommy.    

While working as a Lecturer at Craigie College of Education, I was privileged to be appointed as assistant manager of Motherwell FC by the oldest McLean brother, Willie. What Willie doesn’t know about the game is not worth knowing so that was a wonderful learning curve for me. Motherwell had a fine team in the first year of the new SPL, one good enough to knock Jock Stein’s Celtic, Kenny Dalglish and all, out of the Scottish Cup, having beaten Alex Ferguson’s St Mirren at Fir Park in the round before.  

After spending three years at Motherwell the first of my old pal’s acts found me appointed as manager of Clyde F C. Billy McNeill, a good friend from schools’ football had left his job at Clyde to go to Aberdeen F C and he recommended me to Clyde. The players were part-time, so it was a perfect job for me as I was able to continue my full-time lecturing work. The first of many lucrative sales from Clyde was to Billy at Aberdeen when he ‘stole’ Steve Archibald for £25,000 on New Year’s Day, 1978.  In spite of losing our best player halfway through the season we went on to win the 2nd Division Championship. Many other profitable sales such as Pat Nevin (£95,000), Tommy McQueen (£90,000), Joe Ward (£90,000), Gerry McCabe (60,000), Raymond Deans (£40,000), Brian Ahern (25,000), and Jim Kean (£25,000) augmented the attendance income and kept the Club in a healthy financial position.   

Steve Archibald signing for Aberdeen in 1978, much to the obvious disappointment of Brown.

It became apparent this early that club management involved much more than training and picking a team. The club balance sheet had to be considered and man management of players was important especially as, unlike full-timers, they were not wholly dependent on you for a living.   

BOTN: I’ve heard that a few times that many people believe a manager is just picking the team at the weekend and not much more but there is and always has been so much more to the role. Moving on, In 1986 you became Scotland’s assistant manager working along-side manager Andy Roxburgh and together you guided the country to the 1990 World Cup in Italy and Euro 1992 in Sweden. In both tournaments, Scotland finished 3rd, winning once and losing the other two. Regardless, being assistant manager to your countries national team must have been quite the honour. How did that come about?

CB: While still at Clyde I received a phone call at the College where I was employed from Alex Ferguson. He said, “Broon, how would you like the holiday of a lifetime? I’ve been asked (after the tragic death of Jock Stein) to take the Scottish team to the World Cup in Mexico. I’d like Walter Smith, Archie Knox and you to join me as the coaching staff.  We have a minimum of 3 games to play, but we won’t let that interfere with our enjoyment!”. When I said that I had a job during the month of June, Alex (he wasn’t Sir then) suggested I asked for unpaid leave of absence.  Old pal’s act yet again!  Arguably, this was my greatest honour during my career. To be asked, while not working at the top club level, by the best manager on the planet, to join his staff was a tremendous accolade so, having been granted absence at a time when student classes were running down for the summer break, I was on my way to the altitude training camp at Santa Fe in New Mexico.

BOTN: Working for Sir Alex must have been interesting?

Being on the coaching staff under the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson was a tremendous experience for me and also dispelled the late “hair dryer” myth as in the entire campaign I never once heard him even raise his voice. He spoke in a conversational manner, but there is no doubt these high-level players listened intently to every word. 

After the three World Cup 1986 games, when Alex was disinclined to continue the Scotland job, preferring to remain at club level with Aberdeen, Andy Roxburgh was an inspired appointment by the SFA. Having had 9 enjoyable years with Clyde, Andy approached me to be his assistant. I accepted and football, not teaching/lecturing, became my life. I was used to being in charge of a team, so I was given sole charge of the Scotland U 21 team while assistant with the national team. It was possible then as the qualification fixtures matched in those days, the U 21s always played the same opposition the night before the full international.

Brown was part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s backroom staff at the 1986 World Cup.

BOTN: Scotland narrowly missed out on qualifying for Euro ’88 by two points after starting the group badly but did reach the 1990 World Cup. How did you prepare for that tournament?

Andy did very well continuing the World Cup qualification successes of the past.  He took Scotland to Italy in 1990 where his preparation, as always, was meticulous.  The technical and medical staff received weekly lessons in basic Italian from a teacher who taught at nearby Hollywood Secondary School. We saw the problem of having a full-scale proper practice match with injuries, and fatigue, in Mexico, so we persuaded the SFA to permit us to invite 6 youth international players to supplement the squad. 

The preparatory trip to the USA was excellent and our facilities in Rapallo near Genoa were superb. They were not new to the squad because Andy arranged a visit a couple of months before the World Cup to enable the players to acclimatise. We took the projected group to stay in the team hotel and watch the highly charged local derby between Genoa and Sampdoria. 

Weeks later, via a short spell in nearby Malta and a low-key friendly against Norway, we went back to our Hotel Bristol in Rapallo ready for the opening game against Costa Rica.

We were accused of underestimating our opponents but that was a bit unfair as they had a good qualification record and some fine individual players. Had the normally reliable Maurice Johnston not missed a couple of great chances the famous Tartan Army would have been less disappointed at the one goal defeat. But condemnation it was!     

BOTN: How did you and Andy pick the team up and get them motivated for the Sweden after that defeat to Costa Rica?

I’m not without bias but I believe Andy did a great job lifting morale in the five days before our next match against Sweden at the same venue.  Training was lively, with a good bit of humour, and our video analyst, Brian Hendry, produced amusing material on the screen out with, before and after, official squad meetings. The players, without the prevalence of today’s social media and mobile phones, were a bit isolated from the harsh criticism until, on the way to the stadium there was a huge, harsh banner which read “P45 for ROXBURGH”. The fact that Andy laughed and took it so well undoubtedly helped the atmosphere in the team coach and in the dressing room immediately before the match.  The great team spirit was evident in a fine display with a popular guy, Stuart McCall, scoring the winning goal.

Scotland’s failure to beat Costa Rica at the 1990 World Cup was a bitter blow for Scotland’s management team of Roxburgh and Brown.

BOTN: Next up was that difficult match against Brazil right?

Yes, and to lose the final group match against Brazil was not in any way an embarrassment as the game, watched by 62,502, was extremely close against one of the best teams in the world. The only goal was scored by sub, Muller, who came on for Romario, in the 82nd minute as he latched on to a rebound following Jim Leighton’s great save.

BOTN: It must have been disappointing to be knocked out but reaching the Euro’s two years later must have made up for that.

With only eight teams qualifying it was a remarkable achievement by Andy Roxburgh to ensure that Scotland qualified for their first ever European Championship in Sweden in 1992.  

BOTN: When Roxburgh quit a year later in 1993, you were promoted to manager of the national team. Over the next 8 years, Scotland qualified for the Euro ’96 in England and the World Cup ’98 in France which ended up being the last major tournament that Scotland would qualify for up until recently when a 22-year wait was ended with qualification to Euro 2020. There must be a lot of special memories and moments during those 8 years in charge that you look back on.

CB: From 1986 until 1993 when I was surprised to be appointed manager of the national team, I had been working successfully with all Scotland squads. The indefatigable and talented Ross Mathie was in charge of the U18 And U16 teams but when the FIFA U16 World Cup was being played in Scotland I was asked to take charge of the team with Ross as my colleague.  I had known his outstanding capabilities well as he had been with me at Clyde, so it came as no surprise that all the youngsters under his charge were brilliantly coached and schooled in good behaviour and extreme courtesy. Having qualified from a difficult group we beat Germany in the quarter final at Aberdeen, the Carlos Quieroz coached Portugal at a sell-out Tynecastle in the semi-final but lost on penalty kicks after extra-time to Saudi Arabia at Hampden in the Final with a 52,000+ attendance. Second in the world was a creditable achievement as was sixth two years earlier in the FIFA U20 World Championship in Chile when, again, we failed with a retaken penalty against West Germany in the quarter final.

Scotland almost became World Champions in 1989. Despite leading 2-0 with Paul Dickov (above) on the scoresheet, Scotland lost the final to Saudi Arabia on penalties.

Our success was replicated during this period because with Tommy Craig my fine colleague, we reached the semi-final of the UEFA U21 championship in 1992, having beaten Germany at a packed Pittodrie in the quarter final following an away draw in Bochum. The one goal defeat by Sweden over two legs in the semi-final was, again, a praiseworthy accomplishment. So, at youth level in top competition we had been in a quarter final, semi-final and final of prestigious events and, as assistant, had been involved in two qualifications, WC Italy ‘90 and Sweden Euro ‘92, at senior level.

I suspect that my involvement in these successes had quite a bit to do with my unexpected appointment, especially since big names such as Dalglish, Ferguson, Bremner, Miller, McQueen, Jordan, Strachan and Souness were being touted. I was asked to be in interim charge for the final two qualifying games, the first being away from home in the Olympic Stadium, Rome, against Italy who had the incentive of going to the FIFA World Cup Finals in the USA if they were to beat us. Unwittingly I made a controversial selection by playing Dave Bowman in place of Paul McStay. This was because I wanted to eliminate their main man, Roberto Baggio. I watched the Italian warm-up, undertaken in the double penalty box sized area below the main stand and was hugely impressed, but not surprised, at the high tempo of the workout.  The sweat was even pouring down Baggio’s ponytail.  

In spite of my severe warning to our players about early concentration in front of a packed crowd (61,178) we were a goal down in four minutes when Donadoni shot past Bryan Gunn from the edge of our box. I was looking for a hole to jump into in the Olympic track 12 minutes later when Casiraghi angled a shot into our net. 74 minutes left to play, and we were two down against one of the best teams in the world who were eventually only beaten on penalties by Brazil in the WC final months later. Although Kevin Gallacher got a goal back, we lost the game but played admirably.

BOTN: Not a terrible result based on this. That Italian squad was full of quality players.

CB: Indeed. The final match of the campaign was also away from home against Malta a month later. There was a month of speculation about who was to be the next manager with the SFA in no rush to make an appointment and I was one of the least favoured candidates with 8% of the fans’ votes. Kenny Dalglish had the best amount, polling 28%, then Alex Ferguson had 21%, with Gordon Strachan third. The fact that the best manager on the planet had only 21% of the votes helped me when I was questioned because I could say with complete candour that if 79% of the Tartan Army didn’t want Alex Ferguson, I couldn’t give much credence to the poll. 

Anyway, while in Malta the day before the 2-0 victory the then SFA Chief Executive, Mr Jim Farry, invited me to his room where I was met by the Chairman of the International Committee, and Chairman of St Mirren FC, Mr Yule Craig, who offered me the job. I was pleased to accept and the next day before the match SFA President, Mr Bill Dickie of Motherwell FC came to the dressing room and informed the players. It was reassuring to hear that there was spontaneous clapping among the players and staff. I don’t know if all would be clapping months later when harsh squad selection had to be made in an attempt to qualify for Euro 96. My first official Scotland team was: Jim Leighton, Alan McLaren, Colin Hendry, Brian Irvine, Ray McKinnon, Ian Durrant, Gary McAllister, Billy McKinlay, Pat Nevin, Ian Ferguson, Kevin Gallacher, and the subs used were Tom Boyd and Scott Booth.

Craig Brown was selected as Scotland manager in 1993.

I must admit that I was threatened by the man in charge of the SFA at the time, Mr Jim Farry, for whom I had great respect in spite of a few contentious moments such as when I selected an ineligible player, Everton’s Matt Jackson, for the Under 21 team. 

BOTN: How did he threaten you?

The threat? “The Euro ‘96 Championship is next door in England. We must be there! If not, you’ll be sacked!”  

We were there after a successful qualifying campaign when in 10 matches we lost only 3 goals in a group comprising Finland, Faroe Islands, Russia, Greece, and San Marino. Our preparatory trip to the USA was excellent. We were visited by Rod Stewart who invited the entire squad to his concert in the Madison Square Gardens. We joined the 17,000 inside the arena and around 5,000 outside clamouring for tickets. Rod even invited the lads on stage during the show, the second half of which he performed wearing a Scotland team jersey to the great delight of the enthusiastic crowd. The next day he joined us in training and proved he was no mean footballer.

Prior to our return flight to London we were advised that the England team, preparing in Hong Kong, has got a few drinks too many and Gazza was photographed in a dentist’s chair with drink being poured down his throat. There were stories of damage to the aircraft which, if true, would have been exaggerated. Anyway, I warned our guys about our behaviour as I was concerned that some English based press would maybe want to even things up. We went on to the flight dressed immaculately, changed into tracksuits for the journey, then returned to the blazer etc with all ties worn properly. I always recall Ally McCoist saying to me when we landed at Gatwick and the paparazzi were there in numbers, “I can see the headline tomorrow. Scots in sober sensation!”

BOTN: That does sound like McCoist. Euro ’96 was a spectacular tournament to be involved in though.

CB: The Euro ‘96 tournament has been well documented, highlighting our genuine misfortune to miss out so narrowly while giving credit to Gazza for a wonderful goal when we were well on top with 8 corners to England’s 2 and the lion’s share of possession, and sympathy to Gary McAllister for his penalty miss.

BOTN: Let’s talk about France ’98 for a moment. The squad you took to the tournament was incredibly strong yet there was no place for your goal scorer against Switzerland at Euro 96, Ally McCoist. You also lost Andy Goram three weeks before the tournament began after he decided to pull out as he believed he wouldn’t start ahead of Jim Leighton. Both players were in the latter stages of their careers but had impressive seasons in the run up to the tournament. How much did their absence have an effect on how the team performed in France?

CB: Austria, Sweden, Latvia, Belarus and Estonia stood between us and a place in the World Cup Finals in France in the summer of 1998. Once again, our team excelled in the ten qualification matches, again losing only three goals. Significantly, too, the man who missed the penalty against England volunteered confidently to take our next penalty. It turned out to be a crucial one in Minsk to give us a 1-0 win against Belarus at a difficult away venue.  We lost only one match, in Sweden, and were pleased to get to another nearby location, France, for the World Cup.  

The host country, France, who didn’t have to qualify, were seeking friendly fixtures and asked if Scotland would be interested. I agreed, never thinking we were to play the eventual winners, provided we could play at one of the potential World Cup venues. So, in November we went to St Etienne to play a really formidable French side. We were a goal down at half time and I remember just after the interval asking Ally McCoist to warm up as I had it in my mind to replace Gordon Durie. While Ally was preparing himself to a standard such that his pulse count, as checked by physio, Eric Ferguson, would be acceptable to join the fray, Gordon scored one of the best goals I’ve seen from a Scotland player. Now when a player has scored, I always feel he’s on a high and the goal is twice the size, so as the circumstances had altered, I changed my mind and said to Ally that we’d leave it meantime.   Quite spontaneously, the genuinely jocular response was, “Durie, one goal in six years! Prolific, f—-ing prolific!”   And with a smile and no rancour he returned to his seat. We lost 2-1 to Zinedine Zidane and Co and had four other friendlies, against Denmark and Finland, then Colombia and the host country as part of our preparation camp in the USA.

BOTN: Is that when Goram decided to leave?

Squad selection was my next major task, and it was simplified a little when Andy Goram told me in New Jersey that he had to return home for personal reasons. There was suspicion that he had gone because he know that Jim Leighton would be first choice in France. This was totally wrong because the goalkeeper incumbent hadn’t been decided by Alex Miller, Alan Hodgkinson and me. In fact, I’m still in possession of the delightful letter Andy wrote explaining his decision and wishing best wishes to Jim Leighton and the entire squad.

The other contentious issue concerned the fact that I omitted two Euro ‘96 stalwarts from the squad. Before announcing the final group, I met both Stuart McCall and Ally McCoist to explain their omission. Not the most pleasant of tasks I must admit! Let me admit, I don’t think for a minute I got every decision correct regarding selection!

The decision by Brown not to select Ally McCoist or Stuart McCall for the 1998 World Cup was seen by many fans as a mistake.

BOTN: Really? What makes you think that now?

To have to play the world champions, Brazil, in the opening game was, for me and most of Scotland, a mouth-watering prospect. Such was the appeal of the fixture tickets were like gold dust and many personalities, including Tony Blair, Rod Stewart and Sean Connery, were in attendance. Our warmup was indoors because of the opening ceremony and that’s my lame excuse for conceding a goal in four minutes. I was proud of many aspects of our operation that day – our immaculate appearance turning up in the kilt, the respect for the playing strip with every jersey inside the shorts, stockings identical, the response by singing the anthem, and most of all our playing performance nullifying the potent threat of Ronaldo in particular. The 2-1 win I think flattered a very good Brazil team and left us with justifiable optimism for the next two matches.

BOTN: Those two being against Norway and Morocco.

Yes, A fine goal by Craig Burley from a Davie Weir assist, gave us a draw we thoroughly deserved in Bordeaux against Norway setting up the St Etienne decider against the African champions, Morocco, a football mad country with a 36 million population. A fair amount of criticism has been directed in our direction for that 3-0 “humiliation”. I refute that entirely. I’m accused of being a statistics guy, but I maintain that the stats are factual. The official FIFA report has Scotland in front in every respect except goals scored: corners 6 – 1, offside 3 – 4, shots 22 – 14, fouls 13 – 18, possession too………. and this is playing most of the second half without Burley who received a red card.

To be continued.

For part 2, click here

Diego Maradona – The Greatest of All Time

There is an unsettled debate between football fans regarding Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and who should be considered the “G.O.A.T.” or greatest of all time. Both men have had incredible careers and are without doubt the two best players of their generation. But when you talk about being the greatest of all time, neither can hold a candle to Diego Armando Maradona who sadly passed on the 25th November, 2020 aged 60.

Maradona grew up in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires but rose to become a cultural icon and a football god. Over a career that spanned over five decades including time as a player and later as a manager, Diego carved out a special place in the history of football. Despite an often-turbulent life off the pitch, it’s what he did on it that created his legacy. Not only was he an outstanding player but he was a colourful character as well often showing off his immense talents by juggling a golf ball on his thighs, playing keepie uppies with a pair of socks or simply doing things with a football that defied gravity.  His genius with a ball appeared to have no limits. Messi is talented no doubt but Maradona was unique.

The regular comparisons between Messi and Maradona are understandable – both Argentines, both diminutive in stature, both possessing sublime left foots yet the key difference was that Messi is playable in that defenders could get close to him on occasions, rough him up from time to time and if lucky knock him off his stride. Maradona on the other hand was unplayable. There was no way to mark him. You couldn’t assign a marker as a man marker because he would simply turn him to easily and be gone. Playing zonally against him didn’t work either as England found out at the ’86 World Cup. That goal, more than any other showcased how remarkable a player he actually was. Picking up the ball just inside his own half, facing his own goal, he pirouettes beautifully to avoid not one, but two English challenges from Beardsley and Reid and is off running. Gliding over the halfway line, he glances up to see a sea of white England shirts ahead of him and two runners on his backheel. He takes a composing touch to bring the ball close before evading a lunge from Terry Butcher by side stepping inside him. Approaching the 18-yard box, he accelerates past Terry Fenwick and on towards Peter Shilton in goal. With the goalkeeper rushing out to meet him, he feints left before pulling the ball to his right leaving Shilton on the ground embarrassed. Finally, he holds of a last-ditch challenge from the new recovered Terry Butcher to cool slot the ball home and seal the win for Argentina. From start to finish was less than 10 seconds long but it is now one of the most iconic goals of all time.

What is often forgotten about that time was that Maradona was performing on pitches and surfaces less than ideal for a normal game of football, never mind the sublime trickery that he up his sleeve. The pitches during the height of Maradona’s career were not the perfectly groomed and maintained surfaces that Messi and Ronaldo nearly always play on. Quite the contrary. Indeed Gary Lineker, who played against Maradona in the 1986 World Cup quarter final described the pitch at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico as “awful” and “like newly relaid turf that hadn’t stitched together yet so would slip away under your feet as you ran”.  So, to be able to play like he did and score that goal is amazing in itself.

Maradona simply infuriated opposition players due to his brilliance and their inability to stop him so much so that the only way to do so was to kick him and kick him hard as we saw in the ’82 World Cup and during his time at Barcelona including that infamous match against Atletico Bilbao in 1983 when Andoni Goikoetxea’s brutal late tackle broke Maradona’s ankle. But despite this rough treatment, Maradona inspired the teams he played for and pushed them towards glory winning countless trophies at the clubs he graced with his brilliance – a Primeria Division title with Boca Juniors in ’81, a cup treble with Barca in ’83 and two Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, one UEFA Cup and a Super Cup with Napoli where he is held in icon status to this day, officially retiring the number 10 jersey after his departure.

But it’s his contributions to the Argentina national team that converted him from a legend to a god back in his homeland with his crowning moment of glory being the 1986 World cup where he single handedly won them the World Cup. Some may argue that this sounds over exaggerated, but the truth is that it’s not. Argentina would not have won that World Cup if it wasn’t for Maradona who produced one of the greatest individual tournament performances in World Cup history. He would have probably repeated the same feat four years later at Italia ‘90 if it wasn’t for a troublesome ankle injury but he still managed to guide Argentina to the final despite this. This, plus the raw passion he showed every time he pulled on that famous blue and white striped shirt sets him apart and placed him on that pedestal in the eyes of the Argentine fans. Messi may be revered but he has yet to deliver like Diego did on the international and until that happens, he will remain below Maradona in their eyes.

Maradona will be remembered for a lot of things including his off-field antics which included drug and alcohol issues and for that infamous “Hand of God” goal which the English press seems unable to get over. But luckily, he will also be remembered for the amazing player that he was and the passion he had for the game. He was the ultimately playmaker and free kick specialist, with immense skill and vision that could turn a game on its head within seconds. He was simply unplayable and will be missed by the world of football.

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One On One with: Shota Arveladze

There are few strikers who can boast a more consistent strike rate than Shota Arveladze. The former Georgian forward had a natural knack for finding the back of the net which was more than apparent for his clubs and for his country – 55 goals in 96 appearances for Ajax, 44 goals in 95 games for Glasgow Rangers, 51 goals in 67 games for Dinamo Tbilisi and 26 goals in 61 caps for Georgia are a few examples. What is really remarkable about this was Shota’s ability to quickly adapt to new surroundings with ease and hit the ground running. Moving from one club to another in the same league is difficult but moving abroad and maintaining that consistency is almost impossible. During his career, Arveladze played in Turkey, Holland, Scotland, Spain and his native Georgia but never seemed to need time to settle in, find his goal scoring touch and then produce. Instead Arveladze was out of the blocks like a greyhound, more often than not scoring in his debut. 

Raised in Tbilisi during the 1970’s when Georgia was still part of the former USSR, Shota had a happy childhood and spent a majority of it playing the game he loved. Playing alongside good friend Georgi Kinkladze (who had successful spells in England with Man City and Derby County), Shota learned his trade early on and his talent would start to shine through. Football runs deep in the Arveladze blood with Shota’s brothers, Archil and Revaz also both full internationalists for Georgia. But neither seemed to have Shota’s consistency when it came to goal scoring, something that has made him a legend back home. 

We caught up with him recently to talk about his playing career, his recent move into management, his goal scoring feats and why he thinks it’s important to love your mamma. Enjoy! 

Back Of The Net: Shota, before we begin you were recently were diagnosed with COVID 19 but have since recovered. How are you feeling now?

Shota Arveladze: I feel great now. I’m in Instanbul with my family. I was quarantined three times because of the virus, i was healthy twice, and once the virus was confirmed. It’s difficult to live in these conditions, but we must take care of each other as much as possible

BOTN: You were born in Tblisi in the 70’s when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. When we interviewed Zurab Khizanishvili he said that growing up in Tblisi during that time was “difficult” due to the desire for Georgia to be independent from the USSR which eventually came to be in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. What are your memories of growing up and did you look towards football as a form of escapism?

SA: No no, many people have the wrong idea about it, and we had a very happy childhood in Georgia. As young kids we were not worried about the USSR and all that, we had a normal education in good schools, we were taught languages, like any other school, such as English and Russian. Football was never an issue of survival, we played it simply because we loved it. I played football with my friends and family because I enjoyed it not because it was a survival issue. Then later of course, we got an independent Georgia and our separate identity.

BOTN: You joined your hometown club Dinamo Tblisi‘s youth team in 1987 before breaking into their first team a few years later in 1991. You joined your older brother Revaz and your twin Archil in that squad. What was that like to play in your hometown at aged 19 alongside your brothers?

SA: It was simply a dream come true. Dinamo was the best club I had ever seen back then, and it was a dream to play for them, and that dream came true. As young children we never even dreamt about playing for Barcelona, Real Madrid etc. We saw Dinamo as the dream team. Later I got to play against bigger clubs as well, including Inter Milan and many other European teams. This dream then of course collapsed due to political issues, and in 1993 we left our country to play at an even higher level. My brother went to Germany and I left for Turkey.

Brothers united – Revaz, Shota and Archil during their Dinamo days

BOTN: That was the beginning of a period where Dinamo dominated Georgian football winning 10 titles in a row. Over four seasons there where you won the league and cup double in every season and you scored an incredible 51 goals in 67 appearances. That must have attracted a lot of interest from clubs around Europe. Did any other clubs make moves for you before you ended up joining Trabzonspor?

SA: Well there was not much information about such things at that time. The borders were not that open like today, there was no such globalization and digital platforms, we had just become members of FIFA. So, there was not much information to ask about. I got an offer from Turkey, some got theirs from Germany and England, and we all just went. We were 19 years old, there was not much to think about!

BOTN: You were quite the fan favourite in Turkey as well as later in Scotland with Rangers, despite being a foreign player. Why do you think that was?

SA: First of all you must behave and be respectful of everything like a good human being. I found some places to be very traditional, held conservative values dearly, like in Georgia. Then there were more open civilizations like Holland. You must make sure to behave and respect local traditions, cultures and people at all times. These things are different everywhere. Secondly, good results and performance on the field probably translates to becoming fan favourites like you said. A combination of both of these things is important.

BOTN: Eventually you moved to Ajax which was a dream of yours as a boy. How exciting was it for you to join such a club at that early stage in your career?

SA: The team had star players like Zlatan, Sneijder, Laudrup, I was surrounded by stars. You have to learn to be a good friend and show your quality on the field. I thank God for giving me such chances in life. Later you realize that these guys are not stars, but your friends. I can call up my old teammates from this club, same with Rangers and Ronald de Boer, and ask them for advice or support, like friends do.

Shota with Ronald De Boer and Michael Laudrup at Ajax

BOTN: Back to your playing days and during your tenure at Ajax, you faced your twin brother three times while playing against NAC Breda. You have called this a memorable moment in your career, but did you ever wish for your brother to clinch the victory for the opposing team? Or did you want to outshine him?

SA: It was very memorable because we had always been on the same team and never opponents, whether in club football or Georgia national team. This was the first time I was about to play against him. The first time being on opposite sides, it was historical for us, we changed shirts at the end and our entire family was there. The 2nd and 3rd time was more regular, we played it like a normal match. But we were very competitive and wanted to beat each other the whole time, we had a lot of fun with this!

BOTN: You joined Rangers in 2001. Having signed for Dick Advocaat, he was replaced very quickly with Alex McLeish. How did you feel about the change of manager so early in your time at the club?  Did you notice an obvious difference in the methods of the two managers?

SA: You must look for your own way of playing. Every coach and player are all different, they do different things. Sometimes they also make mistakes. But I have never been against any coach. I believe that to disappoint the coach is to disappoint football itself, which is something I would never want to do. Just try your best and let them decide the rest. Still, almost 80-95% of the time I have always been in favour and on the field, not on the bench. I scored a lot of goals for Rangers, and Rangers is probably the greatest club you can hear about, see around and play in. I loved it.

Shota during his spell in Scotland with Rangers

BOTN: You forged a good friendship with Ronald De Boer first at Ajax then again at Rangers. Do you think that having a good relationship with your teammates is essential to success on the field? Or should you be able to play effectively with your teammates regardless of morale?

SA: Well it always makes things easier. You support them when they need you, and then they support you. It is very important that your social connections are intact, and you have a human sense of being a good friend. Be open and nice to your teammates, show them your culture and it will go a long way.

BOTN: Leaving Rangers, you choose to return to Holland with AZ.  Was it a conscious choice to return to a league you had been successful in previously?

SA: I was almost signed with Ajax, my friend and coaches almost brought me back to Ajax but at the last moment the deal didn’t work. I got an offer from AZ, found it a good opportunity to work with someone like Van Gaal and I took it. I also wanted to show everyone that I could still play at 33!

BOTN: Your time at Levante was unfortunately heavily disrupted by injury.  What contributed to the decision to retire? Did you feel that having missed a large portion of the season; you didn’t have another season in you?

SA: I had 2 operations done in total. First, I had one, then got into a pre-season 2-month long injury, which required another operation which did not go as well as I would have liked. I lost 6 months’ worth of football, the club was already going through financial problems, things were going badly so I decided to end the career there and call for retirement.

BOTN: After you retired, you actually got the chance to work with Louis Van Gaal again when you joined as his assistant at AZ Alkmaar. How did that opportunity come about?

SA: I had a feeling that I had the ability to become a coach. I got an offer from the Georgia national team, and at the same time I got one from AZ. Marcel Brands was in AZ then, a talented young man who is now Sporting Director at Everton, he got Van Gaal connected with me and the deal went through. Thanks to the amazing people there, plus Ronald Koeman and also Dick Advocaat, we had a successful team and a wonderful time. You know how big some of the names from that squad are now, one plays for Man Utd, while some play in France and Spain.

Arveladze and Van Gaal

BOTN: You had a long career as a player and now you recently won the league with Tashkent’s Pakhtakor FC as a manager. How are you able to communicate the things you learned in your playing days, to the young players you now manage?

SA: Like I said, you have to respect the players, people and respect the place. You must show players the respect they deserve, does not matter if they are 22, 23, 18 or 30. Then you just carry out your normal communications. You must also explain to them that every decision you make will not be right in the eyes of half of the team. That is because you have to play only 11, out of a squad of 22 or 23. They have to understand that part, that I cannot be right for everyone. But that does not mean you cannot stop working hard and earning your place in the 11.

BOTN: Do you see yourself managing the Georgian National Team in the coming years? What major changes would you bring, if you were to manage Georgia?

SA: Not really.

BOTN: Can we ask why?

SA: Well it is more difficult to do than club football. You have more responsibility on your shoulders, and if the team doesn’t perform it’s a big big pain for you and the entire nation. You just keep getting hurt.

BOTN: How close do you think Georgia are to qualifying for a major tournament and is there any Georgian players coming through now that you believe are destined to have a bright career?

SA: Very close, they are very close. Of course, players like Kvaratskhelia and rest of the squad, they are set to have a career much better than even mine, I am hopeful.

Georgian National Team

BOTN: You have competed at the highest level for a majority of your career yet suffered from chronic asthma throughout. How challenging has that been to deal with and did it cause you any significant problems when playing in a match?

SA: No no I don’t have asthma! Might be a rumour online!

BOTN: That is strange as its listed on your Wikipedia page. Moving on, we often see strikers who are clinical to their club’s success, struggle to make the same impact when the move to another league in a new country. You have been the highest goal scorer in the top-flight of three different countries; Georgia, Turkey and Holland. How did you manage to adjust to new atmospheres and succeed as a striker in such different environments?

SA: Nothing is easy, you have to concentrate at the task at hand. If you love the thing that you do, you get better, you experience things in different ways, and you get better. I never struggled at this part, thankfully. Family was always around me, my wife, parents and children.

Shota, the manager

BOTN: You have an impressive goalscoring record at every club you played for, to what do you attribute that level of consistency over 15 years?

SA: To be honest, I was never the physical kind of footballer, I think I was smart enough to understand how my team plays and will play. I was a team player. I knew that I have to adapt to how my team plays, as the striker I am the last one who gets the ball. So, you understand how your team plays, as every team is different. Find out how they play, and I think that helped me with my consistency in every team.

BOTN: When choosing a new club, what factors do you consider when weighing up whether or not it feels like the right move for you?

SA: It’s very simple. What is the worst case scenario, if I play and get injured? Then the worst case is that I go back home. For me, that is not the worst case because I have a home to return to and not many people have that, I am grateful. So I did not demand much from the right move always.

BOTN: Your favourite goal?

SA: I always say this, my best goal is my kids. I would have liked a hat trick here… but oh well!

BOTN: Your favourite game? Was it the hat trick against Livingston? Perhaps the win over Celtic?

SA: I would call every debut my favourite game. Dinamo, Trabzonspor, Georgia national team, Ajax, Rangers, Levante, every debut.

BOTN: A young Shota rose up the ranks of a Georgian league and made his name known all over Europe. However, you are one of the very few Georgians to accomplish this despite immense talent in the league. What improvements would you suggest in Georgia’s domestic league structure?

SA: Firstly, the infrastructure should be developed so that every club has its own stadium, and a nice stadium not just any stadium. There should be good training fields for players too. I would also advise clubs to organize themselves, not much but even a little bit. Of course they cannot be expected to have money like Man Utd, but a little organization would be nice. Also, make the game interesting for supporters overall. You see clubs in Germany, Spain, and they have support from people all over the world because they make the game interesting to watch.

Lastly, Georgians must remember; you have to love your own Ma! Whether she is fat, ugly or pretty, you always love your own Ma! You can go love Julia Roberts or I don’t know Cindy Crawford, but you must love your own Ma, for this game to progress!

BOTN: Your former teammate Kakha Kaladze is now heavily involved in politics since his retirement and is the current mayor of Tblisi. He follows in the footsteps of other former footballers like George Weah, Romario and Carlos Valderrama who have used their fame and notoriety to win elections. What are your feelings about footballers using their influence for political gains and would you ever follow in Kaladze’s footsetps?

SA: Look, whenever someone asks, I am genuinely proud of him. The way he does things, the way he acts, he wants to do politics genuinely. He may make mistakes, but when you choose one party, the other party doesn’t like you, if you choose left, the right will hate you, that is how it always is and that’s politics. I don’t know how it was before, but generally people act like football players don’t know how to manage things, because we spend so much time on field running, they act as if we are not smart enough to do it.

Why are doctors, engineers, painters etc told to believe that they can do politics and manage things but footballers can’t do it? We have shown everyone that we can do it if we work on ourselves and try it.  He is behaving, his way of talking, standing, maybe he has good advisors, but he is doing very well. He is actually independent generally, financial independent as well, so he doesn’t like to step back, he likes to go forward like me. Point is, we all fall, but we have to stand back up always.

Interview conducted by Sairam Hussian Miran, Special correspondent for Back Of The Net. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

Follow Shota on Twitter and Instagram.